Managing Negative Feedback

by Cindy Coan

Everyone has an opinion, everyone wants to offer up suggestions.   Occasionally, these suggestions and opinions are negative.  People like to point out what is missing, what is going wrong, what is at risk or what you should be doing differently.  The feedback and opinions don’t need to correct to be valid.

Let me just say that all feedback is GOOD!   I know that the group’s Negative Nelly can wear on us and they can be tedious.  Some days it may feel like you are getting a constant barrage of what is not working.  Feedback, correct or not – is informative.  It tells you what other people expect, want, or how they see things differently.  You can use this information to manage expectations, to prepare for objections and to adjust your plan if needed.

Let’s look at what you might be hearing.

  • Something is missing. This could come in a number of flavors; you’ve forgotten to do something, your project scope is lacking or you didn’t include something in your update.
  • Something is wrong. Wrong is a perception.  It might be a true failure, something didn’t work out.  Or it could simply be that the person has a different point of view – and from their angle, it was wrong.
  • Something is at risk. There is the possibility of something not working or going wrong.

As a project manager, you need to know and hear about ALL of these.  If they are valid, you have work to do.  If they are not valid, you still have work to do – in addressing perceptions and expectations.

Now let’s talk about how to respond when you are hit with a complaint from your sponsor, project team, peer, customer or your neighbor’s cat.

How do you respond?

First.  Listen, this is your best tactic.  Don’t be defensive. Don’t ignore them. Don’t belittle the complaint.  Listen.  Hear them out.  Ask questions.  Try to understand their point of view.  This can be the hardest part.  But it is the most critical.  You can’t determine what to do next without truly understanding the issue.  Keep in mind that the first few words of the complaint are often not the core of the issue.  They are the symptoms.

“The project will never be done by November.”

Don’t just dismiss this first statement.  Ride it out.  Listen a bit longer.

“There are higher priorities in the organization coming next month.”

mmm…  There might be more to this.

“The QA department is going to be starting a new high-profile project next month, that is going to take up 75% of their resources.”

Okay, now that’s some concrete information you can address.

Second.  You need to validate the information.  Is this a valid issue?  Go to the source.  Be careful that you don’t react to second and third hand information.  Always get to the source.

Third.  If the information is true.  If there is something to be concerned about, you can address it.  Extend your schedule, make resource adjustments.  Communicate the risk and its potential to your sponsor.  If you take the time to validate the information you can avert disaster.

What if the information is incorrect?  What if they are just spouting off and sharing bad information?  That’s still an issue to address.  Remember perception is reality.  You need to try to correct the perception.  It might be a simple miss understanding – that you can clear up by engaging with the correct groups.

Regardless of the validity of the complaint, remember these 4 points.

  1. Ask questions. If someone has something negative to say, you should want to know it and hear it – whether you think it’s true or not.
  2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.  Don’t let the negativity push you to promise the moon. Keep your commitments achievable and reasonable.
  3. Don’t react emotionally.  Take a deep breath.  Remain in control.  Be professional, take some time, and formulate a professional response.  Give yourself time by saying – “ I’ll get back to you.” “I will need to consult with members of the project team.”  Give yourself room to provide a calm and reasonable response.
  4. Don’t bluff – or lie. If you were wrong – own it.  Don’t lie or deflect blame. Admit when you’ve made a mistake.  It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.”  Or “I apologize.”  You will be more respected for it.

Remember complaints expose opportunities.

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