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

That's not a valid work email account. Please enter your work email (e.g.
Please enter your work email


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. The 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.

yesRC: It’s very astute to say that HR is, in a sense, part of legal now. But do you think the lack of feedback from HR — and from company leaders and managers — is something that could change some day? Will this trend reverse at some point?

SH: Yes. I’m very optimistic about that, believe it or not. At the end of the day, all change should come from the person who needs and wants the change. Ultimately, it really shouldn’t be the business’s responsibility to tell you what you can do better. It’s your responsibility to seek out what you could do better. If we start with the mindset that we’re all capable of being better, from the day we’re born to the day we die, in any job we have, then we can change the trend.

If Tom Brady wants to be a better quarterback after winning six Super Bowls, or Michael Jordan still wants to be coached after everything he achieved — and these are the icons of our day — then what about you sitting in the corner office? You’re not Michael Jordan, and even if you are, you should still want to get better.

RC: When it comes to growing as a person and a professional, people should focus on developing what you call “AWE”: authority, warmth, and energy. You write that these are the key factors in “determining whether you plateau or continue on to reach the highest levels of success.” Can you say more about what makes AWE so important?

SH: It’s human nature. We’re human beings, and we want to be around people we like, people we trust, and people who bring out the best in us. If we get a choice — and we do, in terms of hiring people and keeping people on our team — that’s where the AWE comes in.

Authority is about trust: Do I trust this person is competent? Are they fit for the job I want them to do? If you’re in your job, and you want to assign me a task, you could do it yourself, but you hired me to do it so you don’t have to do it, right? If you don’t trust me to do it — you don’t think I have the authority to do that job — then you’re going to have to do it yourself. If you prove you don’t have the authority to do the job at hand, then I either have to replace you or do the job myself.

Warmth is a different kind of trust: Are you someone who has the best interests of me and this business in mind? Are you communicating that? Are you asking questions of the customer and the client and the people in this organization to make us feel that you care about us and are not in it for yourself? Ultimately, you’re in business to solve someone else’s problem.

Energy is a little harder to quantify, but it’s really important. We want to be around people who make us feel good, positive, and energized. It’s not always high energy, it’s not always low energy, but we know it when we feel it. If you’re around someone who is deflating you all the time, and you have a choice, you’re no longer going to want to work for that person or have them on your team. If you have that negative energy, you’re not gonna last or get the job.

RC: Ultimately, you say, it’s on us to seek out the criticism we’re missing. Any advice for how someone can do that if they work in a company that doesn’t seem to be terribly forthcoming with feedback?

SH: I would surmise almost everybody reading this article isn’t getting the amount of feedback or criticism that they need. That includes me, who wrote the book about it! So we do have a responsibility to ourselves to ask people we trust. It could be managers. It could be colleagues. You can learn from people who are your subordinates — you can learn how to be a better leader. It’s not just about people who are above you. If you can’t learn lessons from people at all levels, then you’re really not the right person for the organization in the first place.

If you can’t get it from people in your organization, then ask your friends, ask your family, ask the people you know who are invested in your future, who want to see you do well and want to see you grow. Once you have that feedback on your authority, warmth, and energy, it’s pretty easy to fix it.

If you are a person out there in this world — and I don’t care if you’re 54, like me, and you’ve gotten to a pretty good place in your life — if you’re no longer getting feedback from your subordinates, from your colleagues, from your customers, from your clients, or from people you’re reporting to, then you’re not learning as much as you can. You should always be on a continuous learning path. This should be a lifelong concept that should stick with you. It shouldn’t just be for your 20s or 30s.

By Matthew Kosinski