How do you respond to negative feedback? A recent Fast Company article highlighted the issues surrounding the sub-brand language BP has developed in response to its enormous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That article begs the question: How is your personal brand impacted by the words you use to respond to negative feedback?
The terminology you use to acknowledge and address negative feedback is critical to your clients’ and colleagues’ perceptions of you. Of course, your behavior in response to that feedback is also critical. But given that you’ll likely need to respond — either in person, or via email, IM, discussion thread, or some other text-based means — before and after you act, the words you’ll use are worth thinking about.
I’m not suggesting you become a politician and talk around issues rather than addressing them head on; nor am I advocating dishonesty or spin. All I’m saying is that the better the language you use to respond to negative feedback, the more professional, reasonable, and capable you — and your personal and professional brands — are likely to seem.
“I’m Such an Idiot”
It’s an old marketing adage that every customer criticism represents an opportunity to exceed expectations and gain loyalty. It follows that the words you use to respond to clients or colleagues who question your work can cement their perceptions of your professionalism, or fatally undermine your relationship. Think of BP’s proposed “Top Kill” solution to its environmentally, economically, commercially, and politically fatal oil spill, and you’ll get what I mean.
“Top Kill”-style bumbles can happen in the workplace, too. Once, a client of the company I worked for asked the creative who was supposed to be delivering the final product why the copy changes we’d taken in the previous meeting hadn’t been made. The client was the CEO of his organization, the relationship was positive, and he asked the question in a reasonable, curious tone of voice.
The creative crumbled. His jaw dropped as he looked at the work he’d “finalized”. He put his head in his hands. Then he said, “Oh. Oh no. I’m such an idiot! I received those changes, but I forgot to implement them!”
This response achieved a number of negative outcomes. It was unprofessional. It made the creative appear flaky and lacking in self-confidence. It put the client — who, after all, had asked honestly and non-confrontationally — in an extremely awkward position. And it made the consultancy the creative and I worked for look extremely amateurish.
Good Language, Bad Language
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the truth, admitting your mistakes, and taking responsibility for errors or oversights you’ve made. The first rule of accepting negative feedback is, obviously, to accept it — preferably with good grace and humility. But in doing that, there are certain types of language you should avoid, for the sake of your personal or professional brand, as well as your contact’s confidence.
Never use language that suggests you’re anything but a serious professional who takes pride in their work. Whether or not your client or colleague thinks you’re an idiot for making whatever mistake you’ve made is irrelevant. You shouldn’t insult yourself, or anyone else, in acknowledging responsibility for an issue.
Everyone makes mistakes — including your colleagues — so don’t allow yourself to be overcome with guilt. You’re not an idiot; neither is that third party who let you down, and who you now want to blame for the problem. Substitute “I’m such a moron” or “Pete at the print shop is a total hack” with, “I’m sorry, I followed our standard procedure for checking the proofs, and even had a couple of other people look over it, but obviously we missed this error. It’s my mistake.”
Gasping, exclaiming, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t see that!” and moaning “Oh no,” are all evidence of panic, and no client wants to think you can’t handle the everyday ups and downs of work life. In fact, they don’t want to get the impression that there’s anything you can’t handle.
So avoid the language of panic. Even if your heart’s racing and your palms are sweaty with horror upon receiving the negative feedback, don’t panic. Just take a breath, apologize calmly, acknowledge the problem, and pledge to investigate.
If a colleague or client raises an issue with you, you can assume it’s a serious problem for them. So, use appropriately serious language in your response.
BP apparently weren’t thinking of this point when they called a possible solution for the Gulf spill the “Junk Shot.” In talking about a multinational, apparently uncontrollable environmental disaster that’s impacting an ocean ecosystem, countless species, thousands of miles of coastline, and millions of human lives, you’d think they’d be able to come up with a solution that sounded a little less like circus entertainment.
Remember this the next time someone provides negative feedback on your performance. Giving negative feedback is never pleasant. Your contact is doing it because it’s a serious issue for them. So forget telling your contact “I’ll check it out when I get a sec.” Tell them you’re reviewing it now. If the problem is very serious, consider using more pointed terms, like “investigating” or “inquiring”. Always try to provide a timeframe in which you’ll have an explanation or researched response to their concerns, too.
Overly Personal Language
Usually, it’s not appropriate to provide details of your personal troubles as excuses or explanations of poor performance. Even saying something as generic as, “I’ve been having some personal problems” only serves to make your client or colleague feel bad for raising the issue. That’s the best outcome. At worst, it can make your more hardline contacts question your professionalism: “So your dog died. Whatever. Can we just focus on the issue here?”
In most cases, your client or colleague doesn’t need to know the background against which you underperformed. They’re more likely to want to know the mechanics of what went wrong, and/or how you’ll improve matters. Keep your language on the job and the problem at hand. That said, don’t take personal responsibility for things that aren’t actually your fault. There’s a difference between owning a problem and taking undue responsibility for it. Be honest about your role in the problem, and what you’ll do to resolve it, but also be honest about any aspects of the problem that were — or are — beyond your control. This is as much about expectation management as it is about protecting your reputation.
Take Care With Tense
In presenting your explanation, or other information, to complaining contacts, try to use the past tense to explain the issue: “We were using a process that didn’t anticipate…” rather than, “The process we use doesn’t anticipate…”
Use present and future tense — and spend more time — to focus on your process for resolving the issue and how it’ll provide a good outcome. “I’m undertaking training course that addresses these topics, and those skills will help me perform better in this area,” for example.
The language you choose can boost or undermine your personal or professional brand. What tips can you give to help those fielding negative feedback at work today?