Time to Burst Your Own Bubble

Leaders who surround themselves with yea-sayers rarely thrive. Accepting negative feedback comes with the territory.

Hey, you. Yes, you. You’re doing a great job! Just wanted to say that.

Feel better now? The answer might depend on your level of experience and where you’re at in your career. At the Harvard Business Review website, Heidi Grant Halvorson reports on a pair of studies that looked at how different groups of people responded to positive and negative feedback. In one study, American students learning French ” overwhelmingly preferred a cheerleading, strength-focused instructor.” In another, members of environmental organizations—characterized by researchers as concerned “experts” about the environment—generally said they were eager to hear if their green-friendly efforts were having an impact. The more you know, the more you want to know; the less you know, the more you need encouragement to keep learning.

What kind of criticism are you hearing, and have you put yourself in a position to hear it?

Halvorson frames her post as a lesson to leaders when working with their employees and colleagues: You shouldn’t hesitate to deliver critical feedback when it’s warranted, because that criticism is valuable for your staff. If they’re experienced and responsible, they can handle your critique like a professional and use it to do their job better in the future. “[W]ithout awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve,” she writes. “Staying ‘positive’ when doling out feedback will only get you so far.”

That’s all well and good. But what about you, the person doling out the feedback? What kind of criticism are you hearing, and have you put yourself in a position to hear it?

One of the occupational hazards of leadership is insulation from criticism. Short of accusing them of a crime, the worst thing you can say about about CEOs or politicians today is that they are trapped in a bubble. And you don’t have to try too hard to find somebody on one half of the political divide accusing the other of this. Often, that’s just a hyperpartisan looking for a polite way to call the other side dumb. The concerns are often legitimate, though. Richard Nixon’s downfall was fueled in part by his refusal to listen to anybody who might suggest that Watergate was more than a “third-rate burglary”; by 2000 the streets of San Francisco were littered with former Web 1.0 executives who foolishly believed their own hype about their wildly overvalued toothpaste-delivery schemes.

Methods to keep CEOs from living in a bubble abound. For instance, 360-degree performance reviews are intended to make sure he or she hears from a variety of people in the organization; self-evaluation tools abound; and the board, if it’s doing its job right, gives the CEO more than just a cursory once-over during the annual review. Others focus on education for a dose of humility. “I look for opportunities to be the student rather than the teacher,” Shannon Carter, CAE, told Associations Now in 2011. “Getting the most out of these opportunities has required me to leave my ego at the door and get comfortable with being the novice in the room.”

And you? What to you do to make sure you don’t grow complacent and do receive the occasional negative feedback that’s essential to your work?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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