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How To Receive Negative Feedback

by | Mindset

When I was a child, I’d often spend evening time with my grandfather watching cartoons and re-runs of old westerns. In every town in the Old West there was a saloon, and often on the wall of the saloon there would be a sign with some variant of “Guns on the table.”

Why would owners want people entering the saloon to put their guns on top of the table, rather than allowing them to remain in the holster? Because in a world in which everyone was carrying a gun, it was common for short-tempers to be triggered (literally) over something as simple as a bad hand of cards or a spilled drink. At least with the guns on the table everyone was on equal footing, with the danger clearly in sight.

There’s no delicate way to say this: many of us carry weapons. Not literal weapons (most likely), but figurative ones, and we get trigger happy the moment we experience something we don’t like. We fire off an e-mail bomb, or shoot back words that do significant damage to our relationships and credibility as a leader or employee.

For example, when we hear feedback that we don’t like we immediately get defensive and lash out at the other person. Perhaps we feel the need to go on the attack when we aren’t getting the attention we want from our manager’s manager. Maybe we lash out behind someone’s back when we don’t like the way they are conducting their work.

But here is the problem with our trigger happy ways: eventually people will stop speaking the truth to you. They will avoid delivering any news that might set you off. You will be profoundly disconnected from reality.

We need other people in our lives to tell us the truth. If we immediately get defensive when they tell us something we don’t like, we will lose key allies in our journey of growth. If you manage a team, your trigger happy ways will eventually destroy the culture of your team.

Strategies for putting your weapons on the table:

1. Receive feedback openly, and non-judgmentally. It may be the case that the other person is completely in the wrong, and it may be that you are being treated unfairly, but feedback is just feedback, nothing more. You can apply what is useful, and discard the rest.
2. Refuse to shoot someone in the back or under the table. Strive to avoid the hallway conversations and behind-the-back gossip that often plagues the workplace. It will eventually catch up with you.
3. Stay calm in the face of a showdown. An arms race can easily develop when someone else gets defensive in a meeting or personal conversation, but someone has to be the responsible one. Let it be you. Strive to defuse the situation by refusing to one-up the other person’s aggression.

In any healthy team environment there will be conflict. If it’s a high-functioning team, you want people fighting over ideas. However, the fighting must occur within the confines of a safe environment, and must be over the work itself, not between personalities.

If growth is important to you, then you must be willing to listen to, and implement valuable feedback even when you don’t like it. Put your guns on the table.


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Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Cheryl Crosby Boncimino

    Oh YES Todd you are right! Creatives tend to be passionate people but sometimes have difficulty hearing feedback. It may be because they are emotionally invested in an idea or have difficulty separating their personal sense of self from it. When the self is at the center of the idea or creation negative feedback can be threatening and feel like a personal attack. The irony is that the better we are at receiving negative feedback the more confident and resilient that self becomes!

  2. stabbed in the back

    I’m fine with negative feedback–after a 30 year career I truly have come to see it as inspiration–or a chance to engage more deeply with the provider. BUT how does one deal with something that happened two weeks ago–and for the 1st time in that long and distinguished career: the unilateral takeover of a 2-year long project by a “team” member. Me: writer/editor on a 1000-page document. Scenario: under an approaching impossible deadline, the “team” member took the document from our shared drive, worked on it, and stored it to her drive where it remains. I began my objection sweetly, moved on to prods with a sharp stick, grenades, and I’m afraid, nuclear explosion. No reply. Our “supervisor” responded after 5 days in a rushed call between meetings saying this was her fault for not being engaged. Are there times when hand-to-hand combat is appropriate?

    • Todd Henry

      While I want to tread carefully, as I don’t know all of the details of the situation (and all advice is local), I would say yes – it is absolutely appropriate to call foul when someone is behaving unethically, and to draw a battle line when it means standing up for what’s right. In order for there to be trust and respect (the two most critical elements of team health) there must be clear lines of communication, not “niceness”. In truth, a lot of harm is done when people think that being nice = healthy. I trust and respect someone because I believe they will treat me justly (even when I don’t like it), not because they are nice to me.

      Just some thoughts. Sorry for your situation.

  3. Jim Hough

    Todd, thanks for taking on a topic that few are willing to address. As always, you offer a helpful and balanced perspective. Many years ago I read something from Stephen Covey that has stuck with me. He said that effective communication is a balance of kindness and courage. Kindness in regard to how we express things—being respectful and speaking to others as we would want to be spoken to. But in addition to kindness, we have to add courage to say what needs to be said—whether it’s perceived as positive or negative. Striking the right balance is never easy, but if we set out trying to find it, communication is almost always better for it.

  4. Brian Heninger

    Love the article. Recently I have had an email gunslinger shoot some bad emails and try to stir up trouble. It would have been too easy to shoot back right away, which had a better chance of ending things worse than they started. What I did, was take a day to calm down and not to make it personal, then I wrote an email the next day, had an associate read the email and had them critique it. Then I emailed them back without anger and well prepared.

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