I Don’t Want No Bad News – but I am Curious about This News: Our Polarized Reactions to Negative Feedback
Many years ago, Kurt Lewin provided us with wonderful insights about the dynamics of change—at a personal and institutional level. One of these insights concerned the phases of change and personal learning. He noted that we must first “unfreeze” before opening up to new ideas, learning and the possibility of change. At a later date, several of his students conducted research on and wrote extensively about the motivating force of “cognitive dissonance.” When we are confronted with disconfirming or contradictory information and images of self, then we often become “unfrozen” – searching for ways to bring consonance back into our life and work.
Negative feedback is one of the major sources of dissonance and a fundamental determinant of our unfreezing. We want to retain a positive image about ourselves as competent and caring people. We certainly don’t want to be told that our positive image of self is in any way flawed. As Dan Ariely (2012) (of behavioral economics fame) has noted repeatedly through a set of experiments he conducted or reported on, we are determined, as human beings, to preserve a positive image of ourselves and will distort reality and fabricate stories that maintain this positive perception of self.
Our attempt to re-establish consonance usually comes about by denying or ignoring the feedback. Alternatively, we either intellectualizing about the feedback (accepting it in principle but doing nothing about it) or providing a rationale or justification (for example “these folks don’t really like me after I made that very hard but essential decision.”) We would rather not “unfreeze” and will go to great lengths to remain frozen in place with our positive self-image intact. In short, we are resistant to negative information about our self and the role of an executive coach is to assist their client in “overcoming” this resistance. But is this the whole story? Is something more complex operating than just resistance? Are there other tools that can be used than just addressing the resistance? Does Lewin’s “unfreezing” involve something more than throwing negative feedback in someone’s face?