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Opinion: Negative feedback should be valued, not dismissed

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There’s a reason people desire honest feedback from customers, employees or a boss but then dismiss the input if it’s negative. It’s simply because when feedback is critical, it stings. It creates a problem, though, when potentially helpful comments get ignored. When employees are getting ready to jump to another job, and customers are getting ready to switch suppliers over unmet expectations, you’d think relevant feedback would be valued by management even if it’s critical. But it’s not always.

As you might imagine, most managers would like to focus on hearing the positives. No doubt, it can be hard to hear criticism from an employee or customer without getting defensive or telling yourself excuses such as, “That’s unrealistic,” “They don’t understand our business” or “They’re just negative.” Maybe that’s accurate, but it misses the point of what we can learn from it.

Critical remarks offer managers several potential benefits, including strengthening employee engagement, preventing costly mistakes and creating a pathway for producing better results faster. Consider the insights we might gain after a customer’s poor service experience or when we lose a good employee, as long as we’re willing to listen to criticism with an open mind.

One of the best critical comments I received came early in my speaking career from a prospective client. She told me that I wouldn’t be a good fit for her organization because my style was “too intense.” I appreciated her honesty, but I wouldn’t say I liked hearing it. Fortunately, I used her feedback to improve on my weaknesses, and it paid off.

Here are five ways to get high value from negative feedback.

1. Value your critics. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know one exists. People who challenge your thinking are the ones whose input will help you make positive improvements that can directly benefit your employees or customers.

2. Gather opposing views before you make a big move. Remember when Lego made the switch from producing intricate plastic bricks to larger ones that players could assemble faster? According to a Wall Street Journal article, Lego’s switch to making larger bricks happened 20 years ago based on consumer data that indicated the video game-loving generation desired instant gratification, not the time-consuming play required with Lego’s smaller, interlocking bricks. However, when sagging sales nearly bankrupted the company, Lego interviewed various user groups and discovered that customers wanted to achieve gratification from completing challenging, intricate tasks. So, Lego returned to smaller components and new designs and is now purportedly the largest toy company in the world by sales. It pays to understand views that may oppose big data or our presumptions.

3. Welcome new perspectives. I remember when a client invited me to observe an engineers’ meeting to discuss a manufacturing problem. When a new, young engineer offered his input, his peers valued it. Although it disagreed with conventional thinking, his idea was adopted and saved millions of dollars in reduced downtime. You can produce better decisions if you involve varying perspectives.

4. Understand the feedback that’s coming from tough questions. Facing the truth by listening to questions can produce helpful insights. Employees may have concerns about company processes or policies, maybe even the business direction and goals. You can build trust with employees if you listen sincerely to understand their concerns and then make changes where it has merit.

5. Manage negative feedback. One business owner had a chronic negativist on her team. When the employee’s attitude spread to others, she held a private conversation with him in hopes he’d recognize the problem and stop. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t change, and he eventually lost his job. Negativity can be harmful, and you must manage it before it spreads.

Whether it’s positive or negative, managers who welcome feedback provide a pathway for the company to make continuous improvements.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.com.

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