Ouch! Learning from Criticism: Feedback is a Powerful Tool

WHAt! You must be kidding. Green looks great on me.

‘The man who tells the truth should have one foot in the stirrup’ Turkish Proverb

Feedback Rules: The rules around giving feedback are quite straightforward. We’re talking about ‘normal’ feedback here. Not where someone has made a boo boo and crashed the world wide web for 73 hours or mistakenly turned off the life support machine on your favourite granny. Let’s call those instances ‘specials’ and put them to one side.

Normal Feedback: Under normal feedback rules, the positive to negative ratio should be circa 3:1. That is, you help people to change from what Tandem Consulting psychologist Cathy Buffini terms “a position of medium security”. Where someone is in high security mode, they tend to be arrogant and don’t listen. In low security mode, they become defensive and pull up the drawbridge. Either way they don’t change their behaviour. So, the goal is to get people into a position of ‘medium security’ where you recognize what they bring to the party (the ‘3’ part of the equation). This allows you to ‘enter’ their domain i.e. you have some chance that they will actually listen to what you say. While the recipient may not agree with your analysis – at least they will understand it and give it real airtime.

Cardinal Rules: To make this work, you need to follow two rules. The first is don’t overload (“You would be a really great guy if you’d change the following 27 behaviours”). Secondly, the person on the receiving end of the feedback has to interpret your motivation as being fundamentally developmental i.e. you are not using the opportunity to demonstrate your power or ‘get back at them’ for some transgression. Giving feedback should be done in ‘Portuguese Time’ e.g. given proper time and space. It’s relaxed, not a tick the box exercise to close out your list of action items. So, does it work in practice?

On the Chin: We can all be a bit cynical about politicians. I recently came across the joke that the philosophy of most politicians can be summarized as: ‘I will double-cross that bridge when I come to it’. On one level this is good fun, akin to Lawyer or Accountant baiting much loved by public speakers the world over. But, not all politicians fit the stereotype.

Sector Challenge: During the week, I published a long article in the Irish Times that challenged the 3rd level sector around current levels of productivity. Anchoring the piece, were remarks made by the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, at an address given to students in Limerick University. I disagreed with the stance taken and used this as a jumping off point to make a couple of broader points about improving 3rd level sector productivity. So, what did he do? Send a ‘cease and desist’ letter from his solicitor? Find an intermediary to informally tell me to shut up? Make sure that I was blacklisted from every future government consulting contract? None of the above. He phoned in person (no PA’s) and went through the arguments to fully understand them. We covered the ground, ‘agreed to disagree’ on a couple of the points and closed out. Nothing defensive. All good humoured. He was 100% open and professional in the way that my contradictory views were questioned.

Let’s put one point to bed. I’ve met the Minister for Education several times so, hopefully, am not ‘overly impressed’ by the attention. This was a genuine effort on the part of a senior politician to understand, to probe, to question and to use criticism to develop a different understanding.

Lessons Learned: Whether you vote for Ruairi Quinn or someone else, we could all learn a lesson from this. It’s hard to take feedback on the chin, particularly when someone is saying something unflattering. That’s exactly when you should listen twice as hard. It’s not easy, but hugely important. Feedback is a powerful developmental tool. We learn from our screw ups along with our successes. Don’t close off this avenue of learning for yourself. I know that it’s a bit corny (pun intended) but in the US they say “When you’re green you’re growing, when you’re ripe your rot”. There’s something in that for all of us.

Paul Mooney

PS The real downside is that this response is going to kill off about half of my repertoire of political jokes. Ah well, there are always great non-political jokes like the following: The Grim Reaper came for me last night, and I beat him off with a Vacuum cleaner. Talk about Dyson with death!

PPS: Terrific response to the blog last week on ‘Customers fighting back’. Seems to have struck a chord. Have a look at the following photo taken in an unidentified restaurant.

The customers fight back!

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we’ll add them to the mailing list.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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