The importance of accepting critical feedback

A few weeks after giving two presentations at SQL Saturday #526 in Rochester, I received my session evaluations.

I was quite happy with my evaluations for my presentation on how to talk to non-technical people.  I received mostly positive reviews and high scores.

My disaster recovery presentation? Not so much.

My presentation got low scores.  Some of the comments I received included, “needs significantly more actionable & useful take-aways,” “attendees need to leave with action items, ” “very little in the way of reputable facts,” “needs to be updated for 2016,” and “paper is not the solution to documentation anymore” (my presentation was about the importance of documentation in disaster recovery, and this was a point of emphasis — more on that in a bit).

However, despite the negative feedback, it was that on which I focused — not so I could sulk, plot my revenge, or wallow in despair, but rather, so I could improve.  The fact is, the feedback I received was not what I wanted to hear.  It was what I needed to hear.

How else was I going to get better?

It seems like such a simple concept.  You want to get better at something.  You ask people to tell you what’s wrong.  Ideally, when people do tell you what’s wrong, you go back to fix it.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.  Too often, people who are told what’s wrong react adversely, sometimes violently.

Why?

The fact is, people listen to what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  More often than not, people go looking for feedback, but instead of paying attention to red-flags that need to be addressed, they keep cycling through until they find feedback they like and justifies their position(s).

This is human nature.  It’s also a recipe for disaster.

If you don’t believe me, do a Google search on “groupthink.”  This mindset of ignoring negative feedback defines one of groupthink’s major symptoms.  And if you don’t believe that this type of thinking is destructive, look up the history behind the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Challenger disaster.  Researchers cite these as prime examples of groupthink, and one of the major contributing factors in each of these disasters is the willful ignorance of certain facts — negative feedback that the people involved desperately needed to hear and address.  It is a phenomenon that impairs quality decision-making and incapacitates our ability to improve.

I am no expert in psychology, and I cannot adequately explain why people are so averse to feedback.  I’d guess that it might have something to do with the fact that people avoid things that are unpleasant.  It’s like experiencing pain.  If you feel pain, you need to find out what’s causing it and address it.  Pain is feedback.  We don’t like it, but we need to address it to improve.

As for my presentation, it includes a section where I list “takeaways from the experience.”  I went into my slides and reworked the section.  Instead of simply listing what I learned, I reworded the points as action items for the audience.  As part of those action items, I wrote them in a way that could be applied to today’s technical environment.  And as for the comment about “paper no longer a solution,” I realized that the person had a point (although I didn’t completely agree with him) and came up with a compromise that should satisfy both opponents and defenders of paper.

Hopefully, my next session evaluation will be better than the last!

(Note: The “next time” is coming up very quickly; I will be giving this presentation this coming Saturday, June 4, at SQL Saturday #517 in Philadelphia.)

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