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How do you react to negative feedback?

Although most days I’m a management consultant, some days I write, and I remember getting some negative feedback from an editor.

“Your column,” she said, “is too ‘one-note.'”

“What does that mean exactly?” I asked.

“It’s a long column,” she said, “but after the first few paragraphs, it doesn’t go anywhere. Lacks surprise.”

I wasn’t overjoyed to learn about this “one-note” business. A few minutes earlier, I’d never even heard the concept—I’d been a happier person back then. But I saw her point, and she was right.

Sometimes feedback doesn’t go anywhere either. To get unstuck, the challenge is always the same (for both speaker and listener): stick to specifics.

My editor was specific, and I heard her specific complaint. She could have said—or I could have heard: “This entire column is bad, which is no surprise really, because your writing generally stinks. And, to be honest, you don’t smell so good either.”

Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but you’d be surprised how often you and I take feedback personally—very personally. It’s no longer about our performance, it’s about us, our competence, our worthiness.

When that happens, the feedback feels big, and we feel small.

You could say, mathematically: Risk (with feedback) = Big feedback (speaker is too general) ÷ Small self (listener takes it personally, feels diminished).

The bigger the feedback —> the smaller the self —> the riskier the conversation.

But even when the speaker is specific, the listener can still react badly. After all, we identify with our work; often, it feels like who we are.

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When someone asks what you DO, you say, “I am an accountant, a dentist, a Supreme Court Justice.” That’s who you ARE, although usually not all at once.

And identifying with your job is good, mostly. If, for example, you needed brain surgery, you’d want someone who IS a brain surgeon.

You don’t want someone who just happens, half-heartedly, to “do” surgery, and would rather be gardening, or making lasagna, or playing the violin.

But to be a world-class surgeon, or world-class anything, you need feedback. And to really learn from feedback, you need a dash of detachment—the opposite of identifying with your job.

Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means seeing your performance—and the feedback you get—from the outside, distinct from who you are, and distinct from your worth as a person.

Because, ultimately, you’re large. You’re certainly larger than your job title.

To act otherwise, well, that’s very one-note. (Please don’t take this personally.)

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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