Heeding good advice – what happened after I overhead being called “too negative”

By Beth Comstock – Executive at GE

“She’s so negative,” I heard them say. Always one for a bit of juicy gossip, I pedaled my bike stealthily behind where two colleagues were talking. We were at an offsite meeting, spending the afternoon outside and enjoying ourselves. “The only word she knows how to say is ‘No!’” said one. It was like a scene from Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, but not nearly as funny, because I came to realize that the object of their derision was ME!

Negative feedback is hard to take. Especially when it’s raw – even accidental. I had recently taken on a new assignment in a new company. I was still learning the culture and trying to get the rhythm of how things worked there. Mine was a communications-focused role, but I must have mistaken it for the risk-mitigation department. Thinking about it now, I seem to have believed I could make my mark by pointing out all of the things that could go wrong, as opposed to building positively on ideas from others. I knew what I knew, and I had been hired for my expertise. That gave me comfort in new surroundings.

My immediate reaction to being called out – even if it was something I accidentally overheard – was denial and frustration. Clearly they didn’t know what they were talking about. They didn’t get me. They were mean. But as the sting faded and what they said sunk in, I had to ask: Was there some truth to their indictment? Had I become too strident?

Sometimes critics don’t mean well or aren’t well-informed. But negative feedback often illuminates something that stands in your way. You have to be ready to ask yourself: Is this feedback meaningful, and is it coming from someone who is credible?

Then it is important to ask yourself “Is it important for me to change whatever behavior is being challenged?”

Thankfully, people do change. I didn’t recognize myself as the negative woman that my colleagues described. But it was me. And I’ve had to work hard since then to open myself to different ways of doing things and alternate interpretations, especially in new settings. When I find myself getting frustrated with a colleague who is particularly negative or when I hear “No!” one time too many, I put myself back on the bike. Sometimes “no” makes sense, but sometimes it is a way to stay comfortable, pedaling along in our version of reality.

Remember, sometimes the best advice doesn’t start out that way.

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