The value of no

426-kanye-taylor--125292517719288600I was one of millions of people who were surfing the Web when the latest news about Kayne West exploded within the Twitterverse this weekend.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, given Kanye’s penchant for causing a scene and for disagreements.

(In fact, Saturday Night Live famously did a sketch a few years back that ran throughout the course of a whole show. It was based on another award show he’d interrupted. On SNL, he kept storming the mic in different skits and saying “Aw, hell no!” at various intervals.)

It struck me that Kanye may be an extreme example of an issue that faces a lot of people today – an issue that comes to the forefront in the professional world and on the career track.

Many people can’t deal with “no,” and they cannot process constructive criticism.

But as one of my co-workers used to say, “No is an answer.”

Whether it was parental influence, a culture that tries to deem everyone a winner, or a reluctance to face a delicate subject, many people never learned how to deal with constructive criticism. (This is especially true of those folks in the Gen Y demographic, but it’s an issue at every age and with every demographic group.) As a result, they can’t take those kinds of comments without melting down, taking it personally, or interpreting it as a attack.

And many people just can’t, or won’t, hear a “no.”  Witness any number of contestants in the first few episodes of every season of American Idol. These people haven’t been objective about themselves, and they are certainly not being even remotely objective about the opinions of industry leaders and people who know the field. (Sound like anyone in your office?)

It’s one thing to be objective about yourself (as I talked about in a post a few days ago). But it’s a whole other can of worms to be open to the comments of others – especially when that person has the power to hire and fire you at will.

It can be just as challenging to deal with as a manager. Years ago I was a team leader at a financial services company. We had a new employee who was having some issues with accuracy. We’d all been there – you have to listen to numbers, type them down and read them back, and if it’s a big number with a lot of zeroes, you have to learn how to be really clear about spelling it out and reading it back.

My manager and I tried to tell this employee that we’d been there, and we just wanted to give him/her the tools they needed to do their job better. But s/he became incredibly defensive, and said that we were “making it up.” Since we recorded all calls where transactions occurred, we played back the tape and s/he was still in denial, saying that we had doctored the tape!

I don’t know what his/her roadblocks were – was it a personal issue? fear of losing their job? – but it was a challenge to manage that employee and give them appropriate feedback to help their performance.

One of my best friends is an educator at the university level, and he’s told me about students who simply will not accept a particular grade. He’s incredibly clear about his expectations on day one, and yet some of these students are genuinely surprised when their half-hearted efforts only merit a C or D. Of course, most of the phone calls he gets aren’t from the students – it’s from the PARENTS, who are unwilling to hear constructive criticism about their child’s performance (and who are likely upset that thousands of dollars were just spent for a bad grade).performance-review

It would be really boring for me to wave my finger and proclaim from On High that everyone should become experts at embracing their weaknesses. But I can tell you that I’ve always found tremendous value in feedback.

This is always a Day One conversation with me and any manager or supervisor. It’s an important one to have, because at that stage, they’re as unsure of you as you are of them. I’ve told my managers that I always appreciate constructive criticism and am open to hearing it, as long as it’s delivered respectfully. And you know what? That’s worked for me.

I also think hearing a “no” can be a powerful learning opportunity – but the person giving you the “no” has to be willing to explain how they came to that decision, and why. “No” can be a great learning tool, because you’ve identified what doesn’t work, and you can avoid incorporating those ideas into your next project.

Hopefully, we as a culture will encourage people to embrace a “no” and give them a space to hear constructive feedback and think about it. Learning that skill can be hard, but if you can get out of your own way and hear what’s being said, it’s almost always a positive.

And it would be a godsend for anyone who’s had to work with a person who, like Kanye, didn’t take well to a “no.”  It may seem like fun to see someone have a fit or a meltdown on a reality show, but if you’ve ever had to deal with that in an office, it’s a nightmare.

One comment

  1. Great job, Patrick. I was a little worried that after tomorrow’s GL swan song, the world would be reading a little less of your talented writing. Luckily for all of us, Elegy & Irony is on the scene (and just went to the top of my bookmarks).

    Thanks, Jeff!

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