Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!”
~Dean Yeager – Ghostbusters (1984)
Ah, the halcyon days of my early career in project management – Idealistic; focused on digging deep into projects; leading teams; filled with a sense of mission; over delivering for the customer and feeling like General Patton during the liberation of Paris at the conclusion.
It’s not that I thought things would be easy – far from it! I knew project management could involve long hours, fickle clients, challenging team environments, limited resources, etc. What I didn’t realize was how hard it would be taking in, processing and then applying post-project feedback. Especially when that feedback is negative.
Even the most chill of project managers find it challenging not to get defensive when confronted with negative feedback. Positive is easy! We rocked the project; the team basks in the glow; keg stands in the team break-room; and the client orders more work. The usual drill, right?
For the purposes of part one of this two-part series I’m going to focus on dealing with negative feedback. Few things define a project manager and his or her team better than how they deal with negative feedback - whether internal to the company or external from the client. This is where we truly demonstrate our professionalism.
Let’s use the following feedback as an example:
Client: “We were generally happy with the final deliverable from your team. However, total project costs exceeded our agreed upon budget and we found the communication from your team lacking and at best condescending. It would be helpful for your next project to be more proactive in your client communication so we are not blindsided by cost overruns and have the ability to input and mitigate these. Also, please understand your clients are not project managers by training and so may need more clarification than you’re used to providing within your own organization.”
Professionally delivered feedback for sure, yet all you can say is “OUCH!” So how does one react to this?? Let’s examine…
1. Don’t react emotionally. Telling the customer where they can shove their “proactive communication” is probably not the best way to respond to this bit of constructive criticism. Responding defensively or emotionally is a losing proposition, so a little bit of self-control can go a long way here. Be professional, accept what was said and take the time to formulate a reasoned response. Clearly this is made easier when the feedback is provided via email; but if confronted in person, it’s acceptable to simply thank the person for their feedback and ensure them you will look into their concerns and respond quickly. This communicates that, if nothing else, you’ve heard them and will take the requisite corrective measures.
2. Ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand. Let’s say you believe you had been proactive in communicating issues with the customer but were not getting guidance or feedback from them through the process? If such is the case, ask for clarification or examples of where they feel the communication process broke down. Getting all the facts is critical for being able to respond appropriately to this type of feedback. Right or wrong, it’s important you understand their issues/complaints fully. You just might realize they are correct, which provides a learning opportunity for you. Conversely, in the course of the ensuing dialogue the customer just might realize they had misguided perceptions on what kind and how much communication is appropriate. A big caveat here – let the customer come to that conclusion on his or her own. Don’t ever suggest they are at fault. Simply discuss the facts of the matter tactfully, but take it upon yourself to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again.
3. Don’t blame the situation on other people or circumstances. As a project manager, we occupy the unenviable space of being on top of the hill when managing the project and at the bottom of the trough when things go wrong. Remember, #$&*#& always rolls downhill. Accept blame where it’s warranted and provide a concise response on how you plan to address the issue. Where the blame is clearly not warranted, respond similarly you will continue to investigate the matter and will “do your part” to ensure such issues do not arise again. In this latter example, you haven’t accepted blame per se, but communicated your intent to make sure you and/or your team play no further role in what transpired.
So there you go - a pretty common sense approach to dealing with negative feedback. The most critical piece to remember in all of this, whether the feedback is right or wrong, it is always a 100% learning experience. Take it for what it is - learn, grow and move on.
In Part 2, we’ll have a little fun in discussing the “right way” to handle positive feedback. It’s not always what you think…