The Power of Negative Feedback

When receiving feedback, is it more valuable to hear about what you did right or what you did wrong?

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space-X, doesn’t want to hear about what he got right. While being interviewed for The Journal Podcast with Kevin Rose, Musk revealed that he only wants to hear about what he got wrong. While it may feel nice to have everyone saying what a nice car the Tesla is, it is the critical voice that will be heard and provide something valuable.

Musk values that voice, and has learned much from both his enemies and his friends.

Value the Negative

The power of negative feedback is that it highlights your weaknesses. While doubling down on your strengths is a good strategy, it is shortsighted to not work simultaneously to improve your weaknesses. Especially if those weaknesses are holding you back. If your boss perceives a weakness in some key area for example, you’ll never get the promotion. By soliciting them for some negative feedback you’ll be able to see what they value, and work to bring that skillset up to scratch.

But you’ve got to be ready to accept it at face value.

The natural reaction in the face of negative comments directed at us is to become defensive and put up our guard. But regardless if the person commenting wants to help us or hurt us, there is a lesson to be learned. If only you can emotionally detach from the comments and view it with a critical eye.

Constructive Criticism

Negative feedback could also be called Constructive Criticism, and may be easier to digest when framed this way. It can be hard to hear what people don’t like about you or your work, but it is also the fastest way to improve. If all you ever hear is what you are doing right then there is no reason to change or improve. You’ll continue doing what you are doing, even if there is a glaring deficiency in your method.

When asking for negative feedback there are a few strategies to get the most from it:

Be prepared for it – Realize that you aren’t just fishing for compliments. If you ask somebody to offer some honest criticism to help you improve, chances are that they will. You might not like what they have to say, but you asked for it. If it comes from a place of love and respect, then it will probably be the most valuable piece of info you hear all day.

Don’t react right away – Did you ever reply immediately to a nasty email, then later regret that decision? This is the same thing. If the comments start to bring your blood pressure up then it’s best to not engage in an immediate debate on why they are wrong. If they think it, there is a grain of truth to it. Say “Thank you for your honesty” and go mull it over in private.

Act on it – It doesn’t just take guts to receive negative feedback; it takes guts to give it. If somebody puts themselves out there for you then it would be a disservice not to act on it. Use those comments to step up your game. Or think about why you don’t agree and put them aside. But take the time to reflect on it.

Negative feedback can stick with you, so it’s important that you process it dispassionately. But if you can do that, and learn from it, you’ll be miles ahead in your personal development.

Give As Good As You Get

Giving negative feedback is a tricky thing. You can hurt their feelings and break down the trust you have built. Or make an enemy for life. If in doubt, the following rule applies:

Don’t offer negative feedback if it wasn’t asked for.

It is easy to pick apart someone’s actions and behaviors when looking in from the outside. They may not live or act to the standards you have set, but it’s their life, not yours. Unsolicited feedback can quickly devolve into a mudslinging contest, even if your intentions were pure.

That said, if you are asked or you work in a leadership role, then there are some points to consider when providing this type of feedback:

Focus on specific actions – If somebody is “always late” it will be more effective to cite specific situations where they were late, and how it affected you or the team. Generalities feel like a personal attack. Specifics are just facts.

Don’t go overboard – It will not help anyone to roll out a big list of items. This will feel like a personal attack and the feedback that matters will get lost. Focus on the one thing that you feel will help them the most. People can’t process too much of this stuff at once. Your message needs to be clear and concise or it won’t be heard.

Be dispassionate – You can have compassion for the person you are speaking with, but dial back the emotion. Like it or not, the natural response when receiving negative feedback is to first get amped up. The situation will be better if you don’t add any additional energy to it.

Don’t apologize – Don’t be apologetic. If it was requested, or it’s your responsibility to provide feedback, then own it.

Fail Fast Forward

Immediate feedback helps us improve quickly. By focusing on what needs work, rather than on what is going well, we will be able to close the gaps and increase our performance continuously. If we are always focused on what is going well then we’ll end up coasting, and improve at a much slower rate.

With all that said, I’d like to ask you for some negative feedback. Take a spin through my website. What don’t you like about it? Does it load slow? Look funny when viewed on your phone? Riddled with spelling mistakes?

How about my emails? Too long? Too boring? Do you wish I included pictures?

Leave a comment, I’d truly like to hear what you think.

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