Most of us learn to accept feedback reasonably well working for a big company. If you are a salesperson and someone hates your product, it may not feel great, but you probably won’t lose sleep over it.
When you work for yourself, any critical feedback about your business can feel like a personal attack.
It will destroy you if you let it.
Gathering up the courage to leave your corporate job and start a business may feel like your biggest emotional challenge as a new entrepreneur. Once you leave, it feels euphoric when you see your well-laid plans come to fruition and people actually buy your products or services. But somewhere down the line, you will be blindsided by some brutal, direct and very tough feedback.
It may come from a customer who is very unhappy with your service. Or from an employee who tells you what they really think of your management skills. Or a reviewer that pans your product.
Most people have one of two reactions: get angry or curl into a fetal position. Neither will be helpful to you as an entrepreneur, because you have to invite feedback and criticism if you want to grow a viable business.
Here are some ways to handle it:
- Don’t be influenced by either side of the feedback pendulum. Try not to get too excited when people are giving you raving accolades. In the same vein, try not to get too upset when they give brutal criticism. You need to have a very clear sense of yourself and remain focused on what your business is and how it will add value to your customers. If you try to please those that think you are great, you can get paralyzed trying to live up to an impossible standard. If you try to please your detractors and “fix” what they think is wrong with you, you will come from a place of unworthiness. Learn from all feedback and keep a steady course towards your long-term vision.
- Don’t take things personally.Don Miguel Ruiz wrote an excellent book called The Four Agreements that shares some very simple yet profound wisdom. One of the key beliefs, or “agreements” as he calls them, is not to take things other people say personally.”Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” (The Four Agreements, page 48)
I learned this lesson well. In the late 90’s, I taught career development classes as a subcontractor for a career development firm at a very high profile technology company in Silicon Valley. The first time I taught the class, a member of the company’s training and development staff sat in as a participant. When the evaluations came back at the end of the class, they were all good with the exception of his. He gave me very low scores, and criticized everything from my use of analogies to the pacing of the class. I am sure that he would have told me my nose was too big if he didn’t have to sign his name at end of the evaluation. I felt very sick after reading his comments since I knew it was an important client and I really wanted to do well. I later heard, however, that he had personally lobbied for a different curriculum to be taught to employees – which he was personally certified in. His feedback did include some valid criticism that I used to become better in future classes. I ended up being an extremely highly rated instructor and they became one of my biggest clients. (As fate would have it, 18 months later I traveled to Europe to teach a class and he was there. He pulled me aside and asked for career advice. I considered it sweet payback)
- Be a sieve. Learn how to take in a big piece of tough feedback, sift out the pieces that have some use or truth to them and let the rest flow down the sink. Most feedback has some truth in it that will make you better at what you do. The easiest way to do this is to ask yourself “What part of this feedback will make me better, more successful in the marketplace and happier at what I do if I apply it?” Keep that piece of advice and let the rest go.
- Be glad you are not a stand-up comic. Rob Martinez, one of my former teenage martial art students, is now a stand-up comedian. He spent many years performing in front of small crowds and endured brutal feedback which ranged from heckling from drunk patrons to physical threats from an Oakland Raider football player who was unhappy to be the butt of one of his jokes. Yet despite this, Rob eagerly performs week after week. “If my material is not working, I just rewrite it until I get something that the audience reacts to. Each audience is different, so I never know what the reaction will be.” He loves writing and loves comedy, so that is what keeps him going. On his website, he has a hit counter: “Official Comedy Competition Wins: 0 Losses: 14” If he sticks with his craft, he is bound to get better, and who knows, might even pull off a win!
- See if the outside critic is reflecting your inner critic. All of us have inner critics that whisper in our ear when we are trying something new. “Who do you think you are to run a business? “You call yourself a writer?” “Everyone will think I am a slimy salesperson if I try to sell my products or services.” Most times, we realize that this is just our inner fear talking and move forward anyway. But sometimes, the exact words our inner critic says come to us in the form of an email from an actual person. A friend of mine is an accomplished professional. For a long time, she published a free ezine and provided all kinds of information and resources to her subscriber list. Even though she knew she was really talented and had a lot to offer, she was very uncomfortable asking for money. Finally she worked up the courage to create an offering of paid teleclasses and sent out an email announcement. Almost immediately, one of her subscribers wrote back and asked to be taken off of her list because he felt that she was a “shameless marketer.” I read the email she sent out and it was professional, compelling, ethical, reasonable and not pushy in the least bit. Many of her other subscribers thought it was great and happily forked over the money for her program. She started laughing when she realized that he had just voiced her own worst fears, and once they were out there, she could let go of them. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes!
- Don’t shoot the messenger, even if you want to. In my brief foray in the blogging world, I have found that some bloggers can be exceptionally direct with their feedback. Some people are downright mean, and make personal attacks in addition to criticizing your ideas. If you ever receive a comment like this, your first inclination may be to shoot back a bitchy, profanity-laden response. Don’t do it. It will solve nothing to engage with someone who is obviously trying to provoke you. You many even encourage the person to continue to post personal attacks (or at an extreme, start a campaign to smear your name, something I read about on someones blog – I forget whose) Punch a pillow, write a nasty response and then delete it, or print out the person’s comment and burn it in a glorious ceremony in your backyard. Remember, don’t take it personally – if they are attacking you and don’t even know you, it is really about them. (Ironically, most of the people who leave blistering attacks do not leave a real email address, perhaps to avoid real dialog)
- Find ways to be kind, gentle and nurturing to yourself. Even if you are very strong emotionally, some negative feedback will burrow past your protective armor and pierce you in the gut. Learn what makes you feel better. No problem of mine is too big for a heaping bowl of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a hot bath. Thankfully I don’t have too many bad days or I would have a serious cholesterol problem and be very clean. Identify your self-pampering activities and engage in them whenever your inner child wants to cry.
The bigger you choose to play in the world, the more negative criticism you will receive. If you learn to deal with it gracefully, nothing will stop you from accomplish your goals.