Most organisations today have a real fear of conflict. It permeates throughout all interactions and stops teams from being spectacular. When we’re afraid to confront someone about a mistake they’ve made or a behaviour that’s not right, it’s bad for everyone.
This fear usually stems from an experience in the past where we confronted someone and the outcome of that conversation was painful — not just bad, painful. Maybe they yelled at you, got defensive, or gave you the cold shoulder for a week. No matter what, if someone responds like that, your enthusiasm for giving feedback will wane.
What tends to happen when we can’t confront someone head-on about a problem, is we still need to vent to others — and we do. The feedback still swirls in the organisation, it’s just no longer directed at those who could most benefit from it.
This means that we end up complaining about those same people, or those same behaviours behind close doors. This is also not a trait we adore in people. When one of your peers makes a snide comment about a co-worker, you will also wonder — what do they say about me when I’m not around?
Ed Catmull from Pixar says in his book, Creativity Inc,
“You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candour in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out.”
Nowhere is candid feedback more critical than in rooms where decisions get made. This is why it’s so critical to ensure that your response to feedback encourages more of it. If you don’t see feedback surfacing frequently, then you probably have a feedback problem.
When feedback is nasty
So what do you do when the feedback is cruel? Or when the feedback is from a customer who goes online to review your business? Or perhaps your Glassdoor reviews are awful and it makes you feel sick to your stomach? It’s important to think about criticism from the public, and see it for what it is — feedback. You don’t need to take it to heart, and you don’t need to take it home with you, ruining your mood for the weekend.
It is fashionable to quote the stoics these days, so I’ll do it.
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.” — Marcus Aurelius
When we reflect on what feedback is, it comes in two flavours. It’s either there to genuinely help you grow, or it’s the venting of someone who is angry, and they’ve decided to take it out on you. In the latter, you must sift through the rage, to find the bits that count.
When it comes to the former, you must do everything in your power to encourage more of it. For the latter, you must summon the courage to hear the jewels of actionable feedback, and let the negative tone wash right over you. It is difficult, but essential, that you master the latter. If you do not, you will avoid customer feedback and miss out on some of the best insights that will help your business thrive.
The harsh critic, Anton Ego, from the film Ratatouille, describes the relationship between critics and artists like so.
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy,” he says. “We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
So next time you want to criticise someones work at the office, know that it takes courage to ask for feedback. It takes a lot to put yourself on the line. This doesn’t mean tell people something is good when it’s not, quite the contrary. It’s important to tell people what you think, but when you really empathise with their vulnerability, maybe you’ll see feedback move from the halls, back into the rooms where it counts.