I Don’t Want No Bad News – but I am Curious about This News: Our Polarized Reactions to Negative Feedback
Johnson also identifies the value inherent in setting up an alarm system as a safeguard against overshooting toward either side. It would be prudent to build in an alarm system that warns us when we may be trying to maximize one side and am on the verge of triggering the negative reactions. The alarm signal for me might a growing sense of resentment against my colleagues, leading me to avoid extensive contact with the people in my work life. The signal might also be a growing sense of personal martyrdom: “why don’t they appreciate everything I have done.”
Hopefully, with the safeguards in place, I can address the negative feedback in a constructive manner. As a result, I might even be open to future feedback of many different kinds –and continue to model the role of life-long learner. This might still mean that I retire—but perhaps I will be leaving having left a legacy of openness and integrity. This would mean that I stay around long enough to learn and that I delay my journey to the train station . . . .
Seizing the Opportunity
In framing the reactions to negative feedback as a polarity rather than just resistance, we set the stage for productive reflection and perhaps an insightful conversation with other people in our life about the polarity. It is a matter of balancing support and challenge (a balance that the remarkable psychologist, Nevitt Sanford (1980), called a key to significant learning in one’s life). How do we find the source of support within the feedback we receive when receiving the “bad news”? How do we frame this feedback as constructive and a source of psychological growth? A coach, consultant, or trusted colleague can play an important role in helping to set the conditions for this balance between support and challenge. They can help us create the polarity diagram (like the one I produced and displayed above). They can encourage us to sustain attention to those elements in the upper two quadrants that promote learning and ongoing personal and professional development.
Perhaps, even more is required for us to address negative feedback in a constructive manner and for us to navigate through the polarity. We might need more than a trusted colleague or trained professional. We might need a broader community in order to arrive at some accurate assessment of our own strengths, weaknesses and opportunities—and avoid heading to the train station. In essence, “I don’t want no bad news” is ultimately a product of the culture in which we are living. A culture and community of appreciation and support provides a setting in which we can learn from all kinds of feedback. Ken Gergen one of the authors I cited earlier in this essay, goes one step further. Along with his wife, Mary, Ken Gergen (Gergen and Gergen, 2004, p. 71) suggests that it is in community that we can best define truth.