Feedback will make or break you


“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Ignoring feedback is a lot like telling lies, except you’re lying to yourself. Once you fib, you inevitably have to make more stuff up to cover for what you already made up — and soon you have an entire house of cards on your hands. When a breeze comes along, it all falls apart. The reality we build for ourselves masks our flaws so we don’t have to confront them. The only problem? Eventually, everybody will know it except you.

Don’t put yourself there. It usually culminates in embarrassment, loneliness, depression and rejection. It takes months, years to dig yourself out of it. Consider that criticism is like pain. Would you ignore an infection? Would you just let it go and convince yourself that you’re totally healthy? Would you risk your physical health in order to support your denial? I hope not.

Why would you do that to your mind?

How do we magically ignore feedback in practice? I’m sure you have better examples, but I’ll give it a shot. Here are some common tactics we use to dismiss feedback:

  • Criticizing tone. If you’re criticizing word choice or how they said it you are deflecting useful feedback. It’s popular in politics for a reason: it’s easy and effective.
  • Dismissal by association. This is similar to “ad hominem” in Graham’s how to disagree. As a knee-jerk reaction you may associate someone’s opinion with their rank, group, background, etc. The next logical step is something along the lines of, “of course they think that, they are just a designer.” This is a mistake. Feedback from orthogonal groups is even more valuable because they see you from a different perspective. Don’t dismiss feedback because someone is not on your team or because you out-rank them. That type of feedback, if ignored, will turn into grapevine chatter and slowly come back to you.
  • Making it about feelings. When someone gives you feedback it’s a very personal thing. However, if your response makes it personal when it doesn’t have to be, you’ve got a problem. Spending all your energy on how you feel about the feedback can prevent you from focusing on what caused the feedback. I think it’s great to let someone know how you feel, but do it carefully. It could shut down future feedback from that person and make you unapproachable. It’s the difference between, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way — I feel bad about that and I’ll see what I can do,” and, “I really don’t appreciate what you said and it makes me feel terrible.” If your response is aimed at guilt-tripping the other person, you’re building a nice little wall around yourself and they’ll think twice about being honest with you in the future.
  • Constructing amazing excuses. Just stop with excuses. John Wooden said, “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” I don’t reasonably expect someone to never whine or complain, but excuses shift blame and make things not your problem. Chances are that if someone comes to you with feedback, you had something to do with it. I’m sure there are many reasons why the stars aligned and caused xyz, abc to happen — nobody gives a shit. Take responsibility and figure it out. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with it, ask yourself what you can do to help. Send them to the right person, or relay that feedback if necessary. Making excuses is clearly making sure it’s not your fault and taking responsibility for a solution isn’t even admitting fault. The key to remember: only one of those is remembered, and only one of those ends in solutions. If you want to be forgotten, keep on making those excuses.
  • Pulling rank. The “because daddy said so” approach to handling feedback is fairly common. Using rank to settle arguments or avoid confrontation is a slippery slope. If you’re a leader, it’s a good way to sabotage yourself. Your team will not work hard to fulfill your vision just because it’s your vision — you need to make it theirs by inspiring them. Ignoring feedback because of rank or authority says, “I’m too important to listen to that and what you said doesn’t matter.” You better have some credentials or trust to pull it off. If not, good luck with that, bossman.

Once you stop putting up your walls, you have to take some steps forward. Just like dieting, it’s not about eliminating the junk food — you have to exercise and eat good food too. Every once in a while you’ll slip, but for the most part you want balance and stability in how you approach feedback:

  • Fight like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong. John Lilly reminded me multiple times to do this, so let’s call it a Lillyism. It means moxie and listening don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Have guts, resolve and fight hard — but always, always listen and remember you may be wrong.
  • Get a second opinion. Phone a friend, ask your significant other, ping a coworker you trust. “Am I being defensive, or is this totally nuts?” is a decent question to ask about feedback you get that you don’t agree with. I know my wife is happy to tell me if I acted like a goofball and should apologize — and hopefully you’ve got people in your life who would do the same for you. Get help from them; you don’t have to process feedback alone.
  • Get counsel from your enemies. If you want to truly grow, you should know what your worst critic says about you. The best way to do this is ask them. I’ve seen folks avoid getting feedback from people that may not agree or even like them. This is just about the stupidest thing you could do. Avoiding feedback from people because it may not be good is self-defeating. Don’t avoid it, seek it out. Show them that you care to ask and listen — you’ll be surprised at what an impact they can have on your career.
  • Actively ignore things. You’ll get some noise in feedback. Just make sure what you ignore is actively ignored. You don’t have to heed everything people say — but you should listen. Make conscious decisions on what you’re not acting on as a result of feedback. And if you’re worried about the reaction, talk to the person who gave it to you and say, “this is my plan, and I don’t have time to do ____ but I will get to that later.”
  • Say thank you. Saying thanks for the feedback is just the right thing to do. Make an effort to thank people who helped you with their honesty — do what you can to make sure they do it again. People who give you feedback care about you enough to disagree with you and tell you the truth about yourself. Embrace them and value them. Let them know how important it is to you.
  • Ask questions. Your critics are great sounding boards. When you come up with actionable items from your huge list of feedback, ask them if your plan makes sense and whether it’ll address their concerns. This can open up opportunities for collaboration, discussion and at the very least lets them know you’re working on it and you’re listening. In case you didn’t understand feedback, you should do this as well — sometimes it takes effort to get down to the root cause.

Overall, how you handle feedback — and if you pay attention to it all — can define who you become. It all starts with you.

Do you have the courage to take criticism, process it and improve? Most people want to work with someone who answers yes.

Thanks to @lonnen for his feedback on this post!

4 thoughts on “Feedback will make or break you

  1. Dave

    Thanks for writing this. My coworker had just solicited feedback from me, and after this I decided to do the same. It’s kind of like working out, it’s not always fun, but it gets easier the more you do it, and you’ll be better in the end.

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