How To Receive Negative Feedback

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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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