When we receive feedback that we don’t want to hear there is a human pattern that shows up. Often, our first response is to ignore the feedback and hope that it will go away. However, there are two problems that occur with this type of response.

The first problem is that regardless of whether we choose the ignore the feedback, the feedback never goes away – it only gets stronger. If we choose to ignore the feedback, the next time we experience it, it will be stronger and harder to ignore. This pattern then continues to evolve until we reach a crisis. We have had this issue with climate change as we have received feedback on the actions we have been taking, yet time and time again we haven’t responded. Now, we have a more severe problem, and the consequences of ignoring the earlier signs are being experienced by people around the world.

The second problem is that the consequences of ignoring feedback can be costly in time and attention and provide limited for options to respond after passing the grace period. When we first notice feedback, there are a few responses we can use to make small adaptions that will proactively work toward making fixtures. If we wait longer, our options narrow and the cost of adaptation rises. In the building industry, if you make changes in the design phase, it will only cost you $1. If you initiate change during the building phase, it will cost you $10. However, if you make a change after the building is completed, it will cost you $100. This principle is used to make clients be more intentional in the design phase to save on building costs and overruns that could occur later in the project. This same principle can be applied to how we receive and adapt to feedback.

How do we ignore feedback?

There are patterns of how we ignore feedback that may be valuable to know for our individual or organization’s ability to adapt and avoid increasingly negative consequences.

  • Diminish the importance of the feedback. We do this when we dismiss the information as non-critical or unimportant. This often occurs when people say, “that is just antidotal”, or “this doesn’t come from someone in my inner circle,” or “this information isn’t relevant to our work.”
  • Avoid the feedback. I have watched leaders develop a pattern of being too busy to hear feedback from their direct reports. They cancel regular meetings because something more important (to them) has come up. Or, they fill the individual meetings with what they want to talk about to avoid hearing feedback from their staff. This pattern is always associated with a dysfunctional team, anchored by a leader who actively avoids feedback.
  • Hear the feedback but don’t act on it. Sometimes we notice and hear the feedback we are supposed to pay attention to but don’t act on what it is telling us. We know we should do something about it, but we don’t have the commitment or discipline to respond. Individually, this might be what happens when our pants become too tight, but it doesn’t curb our eating habits. Organizationally, we know the regulations or policy changes occurring in state or federal budgets will impact the organization’s business model, but we don’t adapt and are unprepared when the changes are implemented.
  • It doesn’t fit into our belief system, so we rationalize why we shouldn’t listen to the feedback. This pattern is seen daily in our political dialogue and also with certain industries that are choosing to listen to some feedback but disregarding other feedback because it doesn’t fit with our worldview. Eventually, the strength of the feedback will overwhelm our worldview, but it will be painful and costly.

I am trying to listen more deeply to the feedback I experience and see in the larger environment. I am also trying to widen my view of the feedback I notice and not have it be limited to what my worldview predisposes that I pay attention to. In organizations I work with, I help them strengthen the diversity and richness of their feedback loops by designing ways to pay attention to what the external environment is telling them – like environmental scanning. There are simple ways that can support feedback individually and organizationally.