I Don’t Want No Bad News – but I am Curious about This News: Our Polarized Reactions to Negative Feedback
Conversely, if I was totally open to the negative feedback from this one individual, as well as from other students and faculty members, then I would be indiscriminate in my monitoring of feedback and would become even more stressed in my job as president. As a result, I am likely to be less effective as president of the school. I also could be vulnerable to a counter-reaction—feeling misunderstood and even betrayed by those I am “so diligently serving”. This could easily lead to my shutting down and burning out. I might conclude at this point that I really should retire as president. I would no longer be a role model for lifelong learning (a key value in my graduate school).
Barry Johnson warns that we not try to maximize but rather carefully optimize the degree to which we are inclined toward one side or the other and for how long. Optimizing means that we must find a reasonable and perhaps flexible set-point as we take action in favor of one side or another. Finding these acceptable optimum responses and redefining them again and again is the key to polarity management. In my own work on this polarity, it is important for me to determine how open I will be to feedback of all kinds and how I determine what is valid and invalid, as well as what actions might I take to build on my strengths and reduce or isolate my weaknesses.
This might mean getting some assistance from my colleagues (such as members of my Board of Trustees) and/or from a professional coach or consultant. Going it alone is probably not a good idea—even though sharing my concerns, fears and hopes is not easy for me (and I suspect is not easy for most other people). It is particularly difficult in my role as president. In becoming more vulnerable, do I increase the level of anxiety among other members of the organization regarding my capacity to lead? On the other hand, by sharing my concerns and being open to new learning, I am modeling a fundamental value of my graduate school. I seem to have identified another polarity (or an aspect of my current polarity): appearing to be competent vs. appearing to be open to new learning.
As Johnson and others engaged in polarity management have noted, effective management of polarities requires a constant process of vigilance, negotiation and adjustments. My recognition of this second, closely related polarity seems to be aligned with this recommendation of dynamic vigilance. I must continuously seek and refine a dynamic, flexible balance—so that each side’s beneficial contribution can be enjoyed, without engendering serious negative consequences.