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Feedback Do's and Don'ts From American Idol


Looking for some clear lessons in productive ways to receive feedback? Or, conversely, some excellent examples of how not to receive feedback? Well, if you are, there's this TV show that runs on Tuesday nights that is full of examples on both sides of the equation. You may have heard of it. It's something I like to call American Idol.

OK, before you bail on me and think I've become a total pop culture bubblehead, let me explain myself. Yes, I will acknowledge that Idol is one of my guilty pleasures. (After all, man cannot live by the Harvard Business Review alone. ) That said, if you watch it with a bit of a leadership development lens on, you can actually learn a lot about what talented people do or don't do with constructive feedback.


I've identified at least six models for receiving feedback from watching the show. Two of them are worth emulating and four need to be avoided at all cost. Interested in which one might apply to you or some of the people on your team? Read on.

Most informed Idol watchers agree that the contestants this year are probably the most talented group to have appeared in the eight year history of the show. That's good news for viewers. The bad news for six of the seven remaining contestants is that the seventh, Adam Lambert, is just flat out crazy phenomenal. I could write a entire post on what leaders could learn from him about performance - his content, tone of voice and body language are almost always on the mark at a 110% level. (Don't believe me? Go find a clip of his rendition of Born to Be Wild.) Anyway, back to the point of this point which is about how to receive feedback.

Two Ways to Receive Feedback

Appreciate and Accept It: Over the last three weeks of the show, the judges and audience have literally been rapturous over Adam's performances. (How often do you see a standing ovation from Simon Cowell? He gave one to Adam.) When you're as talented and performing as well as Adam is, you're likely to get gushing feedback that doesn't offer a whole lot of constructive criticism. Lambert consistently offers a great model of how to accept adulatory praise. He looks the judge in the eyes (he doesn't engage in the look down at the floor in an "Aw schucks" pose), smiles and says something along the lines of "Thank you. I'm honored. That really means a lot to me." And then, he gets back to work. He doesn't play the diva role. Adam processes what the judges appreciated about his performance and builds on it to perform even better the next time.

Listen and Work With It: So Adam is the genius prodigy this year and then there's everybody else. Two of the remaining contestants, Matt and Kris, are good examples of solid performers who have some great weeks and then some so-so weeks. The great thing about both of these guys is they really seem to listen to the judges critiques and then incorporate what they hear into their work for the upcoming week. Whether it's song choice, stage presence, vocal tonality or some other aspect of the performance, you can see these guys really using the feedback as a platform for trying to be better each week. My prediction is that one of them will make the final three along with Adam and somebody else.

Four Ways Not to Receive Feedback

Resent It: In weeks when his performance doesn't land well (usually when he's trying to perform against his "good guy" image), Anoop Desai sort of glares at the judges as if he really resents what they're saying. Not a great strategy. He loses the audience when he does this as well as the judges. It's totally a body language and facial expression response on his part and people pick up on it. You almost wonder if he's aware that he's doing it. How often have you seen a similar dynamic in the workplace?

Ignore It: Danny Gokey seemed to be an early favorite on the show this year, but I think he's fading because he's not getting that much better. He's always pleasant during the feedback segment, smiling and nodding his head when he gets a critical comment. You can almost see the feedback whizzing right past his ears as he's smiling and nodding his head. It doesn't seem to register. My guess about what's going on is that he's got a strong story about himself called "I'm a great singer," which cancels out his capacity to hear anything at odds with that story.

Don't Care About It: The recently departed (from the show) Megan Joy Corkey was the champ at this. She literally told the judges that she didn't care what they thought about her performance because she was being true to herself (or something to that effect). Apparently the audience thinks that caring matters because she's off the show.

Argue With It: This approach is best exhibited by Lil Rounds. Like Danny Gokey, she seemed to be an early favorite. Her challenge is that she is so committed to her style and apparently so convinced that she's right, that she will not take feedback. Not only does she not take it, she literally argues with it and engages the judges in a debate about why she's doing what she's doing. Again, not a great strategy for learning how to be better.

So, whether or not you're an Idol fan, what would you add to the list of do's and don'ts about receiving feedback? What success stories do you have to share about helping yourself or others to work better with feedback?

And, for all you Idol fans, what do you think? Is Adam the best contestant ever or not?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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