How to receive feedback like a Japanese shopkeeper

Developing a positive attitude around honest feedback of any kind is a difficult thing to do. If we are the ones on the receiving end and if the feedback is poorly delivered (see blog on giving good feedback), it can be like a punch in the stomach, knocking the wind out of us. In some cases it can cause us to lose sleep at night. It can even make us question if we are working in the right organization. But good honest feedback is one of the most valuable tools for you and your organization.

As a matter of fact, a 2010 study by the Corporate Executive Board, as cited in a recent article from the New Talent Times, found that companies which encouraged honest feedback among their staff, and that were rated highly in the area of open communication, delivered a 10-year total shareholder return that was 270 percent more than other companies—7.9 percent compared to 2.1 percent.

 As a musician I have a lot of experience both giving and receiving feedback (it's almost a daily occurrence in that world) but my whole perspective was changed a few years ago by an experience I’d like to share with you.

Udon noodles anyone?

 My wife and I were hosting a wonderful Japanese musician named Mika in our home. Mika loves to cook and insisted on cooking for my wife and I every night during her stay with us. She was with us for 3 months and those were great days. I did not cook or even pour my own beer when Mika was around. If you’ve been to Japan, you understand about the beer pouring.

 Because of her desire to cook authentic Japanese food, we often took her to shop for traditional products at what was one of the only Japanese grocery stores in our city. One time when we returned home, she went over her receipt and found an error of a couple of dollars.  She immediately got on the phone and called the shopkeeper and told him.  He of course apologized, gave her a credit for the amount and thanked her for telling him. I then asked Mika why she bothered to do that for such a small amount.  (I mean, have you ever seen anyone call up a shop to tell them such a thing?) She said it wasn’t for the money. It was because he would want to know if he made such an error and, as his customer, it was her responsibility to tell him. I was floored.

 This event made me think of many people giving me feedback me over the course of my career as a professional musician. I have to say that thanking someone was not usually the first thing that came to mind when I was being given feedback. And here’s why I think I felt that way…

 I have been a professional musician for a very long time. I have practiced well beyond the prescribed “10,000 hours”.  I have been part of so many rehearsals and concerts that I have lost track.  All those years, and hours, and rehearsals, and concerts sometimes fool me into thinking that I know more than the average bear.  Sometimes, my ego starts to make me think that I have seen it all and don’t have much to learn anymore. I know what I am doing, damn it!

 That’s where I am wrong. Thinking I don’t have much to learn is a very dangerous attitude.

 Until I remember…

There is a big difference between honest feedback and criticism.

 The only reason someone is giving me feedback (in my musical world) is to make the piece better, which is actually my goal too! I want a great performance. I want to hear applause, not a chorus of boos. For you, the feedback you receive should be about making things run more smoothly and more efficiently or to increase productivity.

The person giving the feedback may or may not be trying to make me (or you) better, to improve my (or your) ability at a certain task. That’s actually an added benefit for me (or you). Our skill set has increased.

 The solution that I have learned is that, once I put my ego away and try to see the bigger picture, my back goes down. I then realize that the feedback is just another path to achieving that common goal, and it’s actually great to hear. When I think like that I can even say, “Thanks for letting me know”, just like the Japanese shopkeeper.

 Here are my learned tips for dealing with honest feedback:

1)    Try to put your ego aside. 

 Just because someone has a suggestion to improve how you’re doing things, it does not mean you’re bad at your job.  It doesn’t mean you’re not trying your best.  It just means they see something that you may not see that could help improve things.  We often pay people in our lives a lot of money for this kind of attention.  I think of my tennis coach, for example.  He is getting rich on trying to help me improve.

 2)    Try to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying.

 This is the trickiest thing.  You see, two people may look at the same issue or challenge in different ways.  Really listening and trying to see the other person’s perspective is hard, especially if you’re feeling put on the spot. Try to clear your mind and see things from their perspective.

3)    Don’t be afraid to discuss your reasons for doing what you’re doing. 

If you really believe in the way you’re doing things, then, by all means, have healthy, intelligent discussion (without ego) about why.  Who knows, they may come to see it your way.

 4)    Be honest about whether or not you can make the changes.

 Sometimes certain things may be beyond our present ability. Maybe you got thrown into a project or task that you’re not ready for and you didn’t realize it. Being honest about your ability to do what is being asked of you will help determine next steps for everyone involved. After all, everyone has his or her strengths and weaknesses. If you feel you can’t be honest, then maybe that’s something you want to examine more closely.

 Next time you are in a situation where you will be receiving feedback, try to remember that feedback is not criticism and should not be criticism. Feedback is extremely important for you and your company to continually improve and remain profitable.

 Remember, if the company is profitable, you will be profitable as well.

 I use feedback all the time while presenting my corporate programs.  I use it to take a group of people who have never done something as a group and in less than 2 hours make them great at it. It would be easy to tell them they’re not good at certain parts of it, to criticize their technique or sound, but it is far more productive for me to tell them how to get to the next level so we can all profit from their efforts.

 So I hope the next time you’re receiving some feedback, you might think of my friend Mika and the Japanese shopkeeper. For me, that was a moment that changed my whole perspective and maybe it will work for you too!