Feedback Avoidance Makes Us Mediocre: Steve Herz on Why You Shouldn’t Take ‘Yes’ for an Answer

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Most of us are pretty good at our jobs, according to Steve Herz, president of The Montag Group, a sports and entertainment talent and marketing consultancy. The problem, however, is that we probably don’t hear about the ways in which we’re not so good.

“The world will pepper you with these false yeses, and you’ll get stuck in this vortex of mediocrity, because you’re not getting enough feedback in your life,” says Herz, who has helped clients like ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt and CNN’s Clarissa Ward become media stars. “We all know we need to grow, but if you don’t really get anybody telling you you’re anything other than great, you never really know you need to grow.”

We live in what Herz calls a culture of feedback avoidance, and that lack of criticism means many of us stall out in our careers, unable to reach beyond a certain level of achievement. The key to getting past that point, Herz says, is not just any feedback; specifically, you need feedback that addresses your authority, warmth, and energy, or “AWE.”

We study hard and gain experience to get to where we are in our careers, and while that’s a great way to sharpen technical skills, it’s AWE that really takes us to the next level.

“All things being equal — and a lot of times, all things are equal — AWE makes the difference,” Herz says. “If you’re going to choose someone to join your firm, you’ll get 50 resumes. Most of those people will look pretty good, right? So you’re going to decide based on: Who do you want to be around? Who do you trust? Who’s going to energize you?”

Herz’s new book, Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Using Authority, Warmth, and Energy to Get Exceptional Results, is all about cultivating AWE — and how to seek out the feedback you need to do so.

Herz was kind enough to sit for a quick Q&A with us here at Below is a transcript of our conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity. book discusses the culture of feedback avoidance that prevails in our personal and professional lives these days, a culture in which many of us don’t give or get meaningful feedback. Any thoughts on what is behind this culture? Where did it come from?

Steve Herz: There’s a multifaceted reason for it. The first is litigation issues in corporate America. HR departments don’t want to be sued for telling people things they don’t want to hear. Because of that, there’s no benefit for HR to tell an employee, “You know what? You’re not that great.” If they know they’re going to get rid of the person for that reason, or they don’t feel the person is coachable, there’s no real upside to telling them anything. They’d rather play defense than offense.

HR, which used to be a talent development area for most businesses, has become a strategy of defense and part of the legal team. I’m not blaming anyone for that! I’m not one of those people running around going, “Oh, this is the worst thing that’s happened to the world. HR stinks!” It’s not their fault. It’s just the reality.

The second thing is that we have a consumer culture in society today. If you went to the doctor 30 years ago, you didn’t know anything about your disease. Information was asymmetrical. Now, you know more about your disease than your doctor does by the time you go to your second appointment, because all the information he has — all the information he went to medical school for — you can get that, too. It’s free.

That leads into the reason why people don’t want to give you feedback. We’re such a consumer-oriented culture, so if your doctor says something to offend you, you can go on Yelp or Facebook or Twitter and do damage to his reputation with one negative comment. So people try to avoid the negative…

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