I Don’t Want No Bad News – but I am Curious about This News: Our Polarized Reactions to Negative Feedback
My Persona is fully operative! My Shadow function does a wonderful job of ensuring that I am aware of my verbosity and my dishonoring of other people with my interruptions. Furthermore, I have served as president of this graduate school for many years: maybe it is time for me to retire and let someone with new ideas and more youthful energy take on the challenges of leading a free-standing graduate school. This “un-kind” comment might in some ways be the “kindest” thing that anyone has shared with me. If only I would hang around and not take the first train out of town (by becoming resentful and abruptly announcing my retirement or at least not conducting any more constituency analyses).
As I have noted in this essay, the negative feedback we receive can contain a kernel of truth about our behavior and the impact of our behavior on other people. There can be a “pandora’s box” that opens a whole new body of information that is hard to absorb. I face many stressful challenges as president of an independent graduate school. Do I really want additional challenges? Honestly, can I handle anything more that is placed on my psychic plate right now? At my age, is there room for change and improvement? Am I permanently stuck in my ways (“can an old dog learn new tricks?”)? Should I retire?
As these questions coursed through my mind (hopefully a bit of “slow thinking”) and my heart (a whole lot of signal anxiety), I found that my own curiosity was aroused—and an additional question sprung up. Are other students and alumni simply being polite in offering mostly positive feedback – or are they being careful because of my formal power and authority at the school? Like the Wiz, perhaps my colleagues believe that I don’t want “no bad news.” And they might be right. But I was curious and wanted, at one level, to find out more about the validity of this survey respondent’s comments. I didn’t head off to the train station.
I know that my “blow-hard” behavior can also be interpreted as my “forcefulness” and “active engagement” in the life of people with whom I interact. My strengths (being articulate and persuasive) can also be my weaknesses when engaged too often or in an inappropriate manner. I also know, from my coaching and consulting work, that succession planning can be quite challenging for the person who will be succeeded. My own reflections on staying or leaving the position of president is critical.