“I never received the message.”
“Did you check your SPAM folder?”
Important emails end up unopened when your SPAM filter tries to save you from the pain of dealing with unwanted messages. Your brain also automatically directs important information that could save you time and money into its own SPAM folder because it is trying to protect you from the emotional pain of negative feedback.
Love or loathe Elon Musk, by his mid-forties he disrupted three industries: financial, aerospace and automotive. Most leaders don’t make a small impact on a niche industry. What is his secret?
He has stated in numerous forums that his relationship with feedback is part of his formula. As he says in this TED Talk, “Pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. It may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.”
Great, be like Elon, great insight Vorobieff.
Let’s unpack what negative feedback is, why it is important and take a look at highly regarded research as to why some companies thrive and others don’t.
What is feedback? We are constantly making decisions and acting upon them, which results in an effect. When you use those results to change future actions to achieve desired results that is a feedback loop.
When I gave my first talk to a group of CEOs, about 10 minutes in, one of the CEOs threw his head back and let out a silent groan. I was boring him and others in the room. Initially, it was painful and impossible to dismiss. It was negative feedback that I couldn’t avoid—my presentation was not producing the desired results. If I ignored that negative feedback, I would continue to bore audiences, waste time and not achieve the desired outcomes.
The brain is wired to avoid negative feedback because it seeks to avoid pain. The same areas of the brain that are active when the body endures physical pain also activate when there is emotional pain. Neuroscientists concluded that this is why we use similar words to describe physical and emotional pain and why pain relievers help allievate not only physical but emotional pain as well.
The book Thanks for the Feedback details our natural predisposition to avoid negative feedback, stating: “One of the brain’s primary survival functions is to manage approach and withdrawal: We tend to move toward things that are pleasurable and away from things that are painful.”
After my first CEO talk, I didn’t receive much direct feedback, just polite applause. People who have negative feedback are often silent and, as Elon pointed out, must be sought out. The next day I asked my friend who was in the audience to give me the negative feedback that I needed to hear. It was painful, but I knew he wanted me to improve and I wanted to eliminate the silent groans from the audience. Thanks to harnessing negative feedback, the groans have gone away.
The brain may filter some negative feedback when it isn’t sure about the motives of the person providing it, and that is likely why Elon recommends soliciting negative feedback from friends (the people who want you to succed). There are plenty of people that would like to see him give up before he distrupts their industry at their peril.
That’s great, Vorobieff—you weren’t a great public speaker, but you used some negative feedback and improved. How does that apply to leading my business?
Why do unread reports often stack up until their relevance has diminished, especially if the reports are thought to convey negative results? Customer feedback is not often solicited or used. Is it easier to open the report when you know it has good news, or when you have been warned it contains bad news? As leaders, our identity is tied to the organization’s performance, and the brain’s natural tendency is to avoid pain, so we are not likely to seek out negative feedback.
Jim Collins’ research and findings in the books Good to Great and Great By Choice are widely accepted. When you boil down his work, the common denominator Collins found—but didn’t realize—was that in successful companies, the leader had a great relationship with feedback and used it to achieve desired results. Those business leaders made decisions, then looked at the effects of those decisions and whether or not they achieved the desired results, and made changes to future actions to achieve the desired results. Here are a few examples.
In the opening of Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen write, “The best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future. They observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon proven foundations.”
Or, in other words, they had a great relationship with feedback and looked at the effects of the company’s actions and adjusted their future actions to do more of what worked well.
They continue in the same book with observing the tendencies of great companies to “fire bullets, then cannonballs,” writing, “What makes a bullet? A bullet is an empirical test aimed at learning what works. First, you fire bullets to figure out what’ll work. Then once you have empirical confidence based on the bullets, you concentrate your resources and fire a cannonball.”
This summarizes how a leader using feedback (especially negative feedback) tries out a number of concepts to find out what produces desired results instead of relying on their gut feel or ignoring that negative feedback.
In writing Good to Great, Collins performed extensive research to identify how good companies became great, and he found that “you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of the situation . . . the right decisions often become self-evident . . . And even if all decisions do not become self-evident, one thing is certain: You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts. The good-to-great companies operated in accordance with this principle.”
Or simply stated, those leaders sought out negative feedback to make better decisions.
Elon Musk actively seeks out negative feedback. The companies in Good to Great and Great by Choice sought out negative feedback to become great. Check your brain’s spam folder—some important unopened negative feedback is there that could improve your decisions and help you achieve your desired outcomes.