Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Value of Bad News and Negative Feedback

Justin Bieber has a tattoo of his mother's birthday (1975) to show how much he loves her. How sweet.

The tat, which he got in January, 2013, joined 15 others, including a crown, an Indian head (his high school mascot) and an owl, a Jesus portrait, along with LOVE spelled out on his knuckles. How bad-ass of the boy.

But there's a tiny problem with his inky tribute.

The tattoo reads: "I IX VII V" which is NOT the year 1975, but simply "1, 9, 7, 5" - a mere list of numbers. The year 1975 in Roman Numerals is ACTUALLY rendered "MCMLXXV." M = 1000, CM = 900 (or 1000-100) LXX = 70 (50 + two 10s) and V = five.

So, yeah, that was unfortunate. And it received heavy and snarky coverage online when he first revealed it. (see here, and here, and here.)

This raises a couple of questions. Who got this wrong - was it the tattoo artist? Unlikely. Even an artist who's been in business for a week would have known better.

Or did he come up with it himself? Well, that's possible. He might have looked in a book and seen the numbers, and put this together himself, presenting it to his friends and then to a tattoo artist.

But the most important question is: If he showed this list of Roman Numerals to others and to an experienced tattoo artist, why didn't someone tell him it was not a rendering of the year?

If he did show others, it's entirely possible that they simply were too afraid to tell him it was wrong - a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes," in which no one will tell the emperor that he's not wearing an invisible cloak, but is simply naked - out of fear of offending the emperor.

In the case of Bieber, is he surrounded by sycophants who were afraid to say "no, you're plan is wrong" to the Star who may send them packing for scuttling his poorly laid out plans?

If this is true, he’s not alone. Business owners and political leaders are often presented with “bad news,” by their advisers, including their public relations consultants. 

Sure, negative feedback is not always welcome, and not always fun to hear. It also should be offered tactfully and presented gracefully.

But it must be presented, and should be welcomed. 

To demand that, “We want only positive feedback here,” is a remarkably bad policy, which can lead to something far worse than a tattoo, which can in most cases be fixed.

As Elon Musk said recently, "I think it's important to take as much feedback as you can from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have. You should seek negative feedback, especially from friends." This is a lesson Justin Beiber needs to heed, as do we all.

What those in business and politics (as well as the arts, the military and any other institution) can take from Bieber’s tattoo flub is that it pays to listen to your consultants in good faith. They are not simply paid to be “yes men” and sycophants, but to give honest and frank advice designed to both avoid reputation-damaging mistakes and help to claw your way back when you make them.

Another problem is that often, consultants are not included in major decision-making meetings, and are left out of the loop. That’s a huge mistake, because they are there to prevent major screw ups and poor ethical decisions that can quickly come back to haunt them — like Bieber’s tattoo.

Sadly, either no one has told young Mr. Bieber that he made an error or he didn't care, because a recent photo shows the same erroneous numerals on his chest.

Don't likewise ignore the good advice of your PR professional when it's offered. Even if it's "negative."