The Benefits of Negative Feedback

The Benefits of Negative Feedback

by John Butman  |   9:00 AM September 16, 2013

I recently gave a lunchtime “author’s talk” at Children’s Hospital in Boston and, although I thought the talk went well, somebody in the audience didn’t like it at all. On the evaluation form, the person in question wrote a single word in the comment box: CONFUSING. Thank you, whoever you are. While everybody else gave me good marks and said nice things, which I appreciated, my critic forced me into self-examination. Was he the only one forthright enough to speak up, or was he the only one not paying enough attention to get it? What was confusing? The ideas? The presentation?This all got me thinking about feedback. Whenever you go public with an idea — in a book, a talk, a presentation, a video, a graphic — you will inevitably get many kinds of responses. This feedback generally falls into one of three categories: praise, silence, and backlash.

Praise seems quite easy to handle — we all love to be praised, especially when the praise is nonspecific, such as “fascinating!” Go ahead and bask in the praise: It is a reward for your work and a motivation to push forward. But such praise is not necessarily valuable feedback. In order to make use of this praise, you must probe it deeper: What, exactly, was fascinating?

Silence can be difficult to interpret. A few years ago, during a 90-day interim as blogger-in-residence for BzzAgent, a start-up social media marketing firm, I wrote a daily blog about company issues and stories. Some of these posts received zero comments. I assumed my readers were indifferent, disengaged, or actively did not like these particular bits of writing. But, in face-to-face discussions with my audience (there I was, surrounded by them), I discovered that often Internet silence corresponded to deep thinking and reflection done off-line. So, as with praise, the value of silence may require mining: Did I leave you speechless? Or did you just not care?

An idea that advocates any kind of change is likely to receive some amount of negative response. When you’ve invested time, energy, and passion into your idea, this rejection can hurt. Your first impulse may be to lash back, to rebut the rebuttal. But a better response is to let the backlash unfold a bit: It is likely that negative feedback will be the most useful in further developing your idea.

Backlash takes many forms and is unleashed for many reasons, so it’s important to first understand the nature of the criticism, as well as its source. A thoughtful review from a credible source is not the same as a mean-spirited comment online from an anonymous Internet troll. (The latter of which you can ignore.)

If, as with praise and silence, you take a moment (or a night’s sleep) to reflect on the backlash — what kind is it? why is it happening? — you may realize that backlash has its own unique advantages:

It deepens the appreciation of advocates. In light of a contrary opinion, those who initially said your idea was simply “fantastic” may be forced to think about it more deeply, and respond with more detail. I thought X was fantastic, but in light of these comments, I had to reconsider and found that XX… Additionally, backlash can cause those who were silent at first to speak up as advocates of the idea. Only when an idea is challenged, and especially when it is attacked, do people realize just how much they care about it.

It creates new contexts for the idea. Consider backlash against Michael Pollan, the best-selling food expert, whose books include The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, most recently, Cooked. Adam Merberg, in the Berkeley Science Review, suggests Pollan misrepresents and even vilifies science. Tyler Cowen, in Slate, writes that Pollan “neglects the macro perspective of the economist.” And Emily Matchar argues against Pollan’s historic view of women’s role in cooking in her article, “Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig?” Did Pollan think his ideas through from the point of view of science, economics, and feminism? Maybe, maybe not, but thanks to the backlash he received, the debate about the value of home cooking now embraces those topics. Negative feedback from disparate domains empowers you to articulate your idea more clearly — to incorporate, avoid, or merge it with other areas of thought.

It improves the quality of the argument. Recently in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik explains how brain science has become an explanation for just about everything (why we eat what we eat, say what we say, etc.), and how people are beginning to push back against it. This backlash may be a case of idea fatigue: People are merely tired of hearing about the brain, to a point of heated annoyance.

Discussion, debate, and positive­­­-negative tussling serve to put an idea through a public testing that makes it stronger and better or, sometimes, rejects it. As the one who has brought the idea forward, it brings you into the conversation in a new way, giving you more license to speak further, create new expressions of your idea, and seek to influence outcomes you care about.

It is no small feat to stimulate genuine conversation about any idea, and to generate criticism, rebuttal, debate — and even attack — suggests that you have touched a nerve, surfaced a tension, or put your finger on an issue that needs discussing.

While the particular comments matter, what matters more is how you use the feedback to gather advocates, interpret your idea in new contexts, and improve its quality for your now broader audience.

So, to the person at the Children’s Hospital talk, please be in touch with a bit more detail. I don’t mind being called confusing, but I need to know exactly how and where and why you think that.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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