When evaluating programs and organizations, bad news can be good news. What I mean by that is any feedback is helpful to an organization if leaders listen to the feedback, look for value in the information, and make improvements accordingly. However, what so often happens is that leaders immediately become defensive and look for ways to discredit or cast doubt on criticism. Almost impulsively, they look for ways to find fault with negative feedback and only accept high ratings and praise. The tendency is to automatically try to identify the people who made critical comments and explain away what was said because of who said it: “They’re always complaining”; “That person is poisoning the well for everyone else”; “We couldn’t give them raises this year so they’re angry”; and on and on.
Some organizations have a culture that is so insular they can’t hear bad news. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), “founded more than one hundred years ago as a way to protect student-athletes”, appears to be one of these organizations. In a series of columns written for the New York Times, Joe Nocera has described some examples of the NCAA failing to act in the best interests of students. He writes:
The N.C.A.A. claims — as it always does — that it is acting to protect its athletes “from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” But this is classic N.C.A.A. Orwellian spin. Its true purpose in preventing athletes from engaging with agents while in college is to exacerbate their exploitation. The professional and commercial enterprise doing the exploiting, of course, is college sports itself.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the facts that Nocera cites, but it does seem that the NCAA is not making use of this opportunity to look at itself in the mirror and make improvements. Rather than accepting the feedback and explaining what they will do to make the NCAA a better organization for students and its member institutions, organizational leaders have become defensive and have attacked Nocera in the press. Dave Pickle, a long-time employee of the NCAA, wrote a blog post about Nocera titled, “News not fit to print.”
This isn’t a constructive response, especially by an organization that has responsibility not only to its member institutions but also to the wider public. One of the primary ways in which organizations learn is by periodically examining what they do and what stakeholder’s (customers/clients, employees, suppliers, wider community, etc.) think of what they do. If leaders do not listen to the “bad” as well as the “good”, they cannot learn. Barriers to listening, such as the argumentum ad hominem defense, do not allow for continuous improvement. Like the NCAA, a culture can develop in organizations in which these barriers become ingrained in the way they do business. “Bad news” should provide an opportunity for learning and change. Great organizations turn bad news into news they can use.