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Feedback Do’s and Don’ts From American Idol

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in The Next Level

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.

Aa_logo 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 Aa_adam 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 Chris, 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

Aa_anoop 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.

Aa_lil 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?

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

dainiic May 13, 2009 at 8:44 am

I agree. I love Adam’s manners, I love the way he presents himself. He is one of the best.
I love Clay, too. The thing is, he got a LOT of awful, at times rude critique from Simon… At the same time, Adam only gets praise (with rare rare excaptions and NEVER as awful as Clay got). These are completely different situations. If I have to compare them, Adam was a star from the very beginning, Clay evolved into one (though his voice was always a star). Adam is more contemporary than Clay.
My third fave, David Cook… well, there were a couple of times where I would have kept my mouth shut in his stead (like after the Simon’s charisma comment… because that was just not worth it, Simon had already made a fool out of himself), but hey, he’s a pieace of gold, too.


kriket May 9, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Dang who yanked the claymates chain? The author never mention clay so wth?

As a manager of 26 staff members I appreciate the article. I see my staff in each of the comparisons and by far would rather have more ‘Adams’ than “lils”, or “Dannys”.

Idol is also my ‘guilty pleasure’


Cookie April 20, 2009 at 10:55 pm

In a few years people will get hazy on Adam when the new people arrive,if Idol lasts. A few people here need to visit either Clack or Youtube and pull up tht glorious voice of Clay’s. And as someone said,its much more exciting to see a nobody evolve and a nobody with a golden voice, it gives me chills to think about it.


mik April 20, 2009 at 9:09 am

Oh, I thought the initial Q was about how to take feedback. I didnt know that the ‘best contestants’ on the show were only the winners? damn, dont look at me.. Im not the one who’s going to tell Jennifer Hudsen to give those grammys back


Lola April 19, 2009 at 12:38 pm

I think Adam and Allison will be the two finalists. Anyway I hope so. They should do a duet. They are both entertainers. I have been to only one Idol tour and that was season 2 and because of Adam and Allison, I plan to attend season 8 Idol Tour.


TerryT April 18, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I think the title “the best contestant ever” should go to someone who at least was able to win his/her own season. But as Mr. Cowell might say: It’s just my opinion. Of course Adam hasn’t won yet either, but many assume he will and the initial question was specifically about him.


mik April 18, 2009 at 11:41 am

Terry I think a lot of people would disagree with you, all you would have to do is attend a concert of Aiken’s and you would see he can sing anything and has a voice that can hit any range. Kelly on the other hand has a glorious voice until she hits her upper register..thats just painful to me.
I would think that between the three you mentioned above, that Adam would take that prize just on personality. Clay could have given Adam a run for his money this year..I would die to see a sing off!!


LuvsTalent April 18, 2009 at 11:26 am

Adam is certainly the most talented this year–by a hollywood mile, and the reason I still watch idol in spite of its minipulations. Adam has a modern, young, sound plus the X-factor + a great voice, but he seems overly polished in stragedy–which does show he is smart. Still, a fantastic talent. Best ever? One of the best three for sure.

6years ago Clay Aiken was a true diamond in the rough, with a voice that astonished much as Ms Boyle did this week on You-tube. Back then, the watching public got to discover the talent, not the Idol producers who now parse their praise according to sales projections and itunes’ downloads. Clay was a novice compared to later idols. But the voice is golden, and he did have a spectacular learning curve, utilizing the Judges’ comments. Also, lets see which new Idols last 6 years with fans and can sustain nine tours.

David Cook was also a spectacular natural talent who evolved as time went on using a very seductive tone and non-traditional arrangements to combine Rock with an actual melodic voice. Again he was praised in accorance with itunes’ sales. He did however, deserve it. I still listen to his performances on Idol with awe.

I enjoyed your article very much, and only disagree that the talent pool this year is not the best ever. 2003 and 2008 probably had that with Clay vs Ruben, and the 2 Davids.
Excellent article though, with some actual food for thought.


TerryT April 18, 2009 at 9:57 am

Best contestant ever? No, but he is the pick of the litter in an othewise mundane year. Kelly Clarkson invented how to win and Idol would have died long ago if it weren’t for her. She spoiled everyone into thinking it would be easy to find a superstar and it hasn’t been. What works on American Idol doesn’t necessarily translate to the real world of the music business. Last year’s winner David Cook updated how to win by showing great musicianship and “making songs his own” as the judges like to say. Adam is just following his pattern. In a contest between Kelly, David and Adam, I suspect they would finish in that order.


mik April 17, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Clay was by far the best. Adam is too polished…
I would much rather watch talented teachers, waitresses etc. achieve
fame with their voice. Its like the Susan Boyle character from Britains got Talent. Much more exciting!


Annabel April 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Adam is a professional actor, isn’t he? Could be his “humility” is all just part of playing the role of a good Idol contestant with the ideal of that role being created by the successes and failures of the past. It’s apparently an easy role to play because he is talented, but it doesn’t have a genuine feel at times. He may be the best performer since Taylor, but he isn’t the best singer ever and the judges are so bedazzled they never call him on it.


Daniel April 17, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Adam – hands down, the best, on every level, to have graced that show.

Thank you for your insights, I agree with your points.


May April 17, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I am not an American, but I have watched Idol since the first show, I am also a singing teacher, and purely on singing, it has to be Clay. His voice is just perfect for me. Adam is also amazing, and is probably the best preformer that has been on AI. He is older than Clay was, and much more experienced, but I do think he is a natural, he loves it, you can see that. He also has had praise the whole way, They obviously knew he was experienced. I actually miss the raw talent off the street.


Brook April 17, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Adam is the beneficiary of over-the-top praise by a judging panel that decided long ago that they want him in the final (much like they did with Archuleta last year). Yes, he has talent, but he’s far from the best performer ever on Idol! Comparing the way young singers, cast to perform on a TV reality show about a singing competition, receive praise to the way “real” performers do in the workplace is ridiculous…. Unless, of course, you’re saying that evaluations handed out in the workplace reflect hidden agendas rather than an honest assessment of objectively-defined performance standards. Come to think of it, you’re probably right..


Yuka April 17, 2009 at 1:43 pm

I don’t mind contestant talking back to the judges, ‘cos the judges are not always right! This week, I thought I was watching a different show with the one they saw!

I don’t like when contestants talk back. But to some extends, you need to defend what you consider as an art. ‘cos American Idol often doesn’t appreciate art and talent. They only care about money!

Imo, Adam had every right to talk back in Country week. Just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it’s bad! But it’s also good that he decided to shut up.

I remember David Cook, when Simon said he had no charisma. His response was annoying imo. But at the end, he was the one who’s really cared about the feedback. It’s much better than pretending to be nice just to impress the viewers.


Scott Eblin April 17, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Wow! I think I’ve figured out how to generate blog comments – just start a conversation about American Idol! Thanks everyone for sharing your perspective, observations and points of view. I’ve enjoyed the conversation and look forward to more in the future.

Cheers –



celeste April 17, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Great reading… I will said your observation are on point…. but I don´t agree that this season is the most talented one… last year season at least 5 contestants, Archuleta, Cook, White, Castro, Johns played instruments, this year only Kris, Matt and Scott do… and if you compare the mad vocals that David Archuleta and David Cook have only Adam can compite with them… in pretty much this hold season is worth watching because Adam is in the program the rest is just bleh for me…


TENNIE April 17, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Sorry,Gerritv, didn’t mean to leave you out.Was concentrating on Clay.


TENNIE April 17, 2009 at 12:00 pm



Kathy April 17, 2009 at 8:49 am

I feel Clay is the best contestant because if you listen to the judges comments and especially Simon, no matter how brillant he(Clay) was it was always the same, You Don’t look like the American Idol. Ruben on the other hand didn’t look the part yet the judges and especially Simon didn’t insult him the way they did Clay. And by the way, Clay also received a standing ovation from all three judges when he sang Elton Johns song on the wild card result show. I do like Adam but I feel he is a much more seasoned performer/singer than the earlier contestants were. I do not hold that against him it is just he way the show has evolved. I do feel Adam is going to win because he is a talented singer. However, Clay will always be my favorite because he grew each week and amazed me not only with his beautiful voice but with the wonderful person he is. The fans really got to know the contestants back then. This season is a little better focusing on the contestants however the producers could give more time to them and less to other celebrities. I do like seeing all the other idols and how they are doing.


Anna April 17, 2009 at 8:41 am

I’m in total agreement with the article.

As for Clay, he took criticism well too. Is he better than Adam? Was he the best Idol ever? Sorry but not even close.


adam fan April 17, 2009 at 6:30 am

Excellent article!
Adam is also a good teamworker, he’s constantly demonstrating support for his fellow contestants and we’ve seen him thanking the band, mentors, and musicians who are working with him! He has also shown how to deal with professional and personal issues ellegantly.
It’s talent plus intelligence plus a charming personality.


Angel April 17, 2009 at 1:50 am

Thank you for that wonderful assessment. You are spot on regarding how Adam takes in the comments from the judges. He is always so humble and never fails to thank the judges and the fans. He is an awesome talent and I am glad I have the privilege to watch him every week.
I am a Clay Aiken fan also but I’m sorry, Adam far surpasses Clay in every way. No other Idol contestant has created the buzz that Adam has.


MARIE April 16, 2009 at 11:01 pm



petra April 16, 2009 at 10:27 pm

No, Clay Aiken has been the best contestants in every aspect, that’s it!


Cookie April 16, 2009 at 10:27 pm

I love Adam and I agree totally with almost everything you said. Sometimes memories are short. Go back and look at the way Clay Aiken took the insults week after week. No one could be more pleasant or humble. To me he’s the greatest to come out of Idol. I don’t agree this season is the most talented,not even close.


jackie Doty April 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Clay Aiken is my favorite and I think best contestent ever. In concert he is the best entertainer and of coarse the fabulous voice is even better in person.


nlangf April 16, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Excellent article and case study. Couldn’t agree more with you. I’ve witnessed Adam and his family’s humility and appreciations for fans. Do you notice that Adam is always very serious and attentative when listening to the judges. He not only looks humble and polite on the stage but also sincerely takes the criticism and feedbacks and works on them in his songs. He works very hard to drive each of his performance and his whole idol experience to perfection. Thanks for the article.


pclark April 16, 2009 at 9:35 pm

I somewhat agree with Lana. Set aside whether Lil is an outstanding vocalist, I believe Lil has been sincere in listening the suggestion. Unfortunately, many “advise” are badly articulated. and Lil may also either do not have a good adviser or not too astute in interpreting and got confused easily. If the judges truly interest to coach and provide better or clearer direction, then they should be more direct with precious comment or examples.
I have been a senior executive for over 25 years and have seen many good employees with the potential like Lil and ends up get discouraged and lost the passion on their work or career inspiration. However, a true performer should be able to be assertive to his or her goal and not give up with one disappointment or failure.


Kathy Santini April 16, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Adam is the BEST for MANY reasons…not just his performances. You are right…he takes criticism well, thanks the judges (even when the criticism is bad), learns from it, and gets to work. He is outstanding in his ability to be humble and polite…which shows “class and elegance”. Did you notice, after the wonderful praise he received after Black or White, that he almost cried? What does that show us? He is human, someone WE can relate to, he has feelings, and he is vulnerable…just like the rest of us. It would be good to remember this in the business world as well. GR8 article, thank you.


Liz April 16, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I have never witnessed a personality in the entertainment world like his. If someone else can, please tell me. His parents did a great job raising him.


Lana April 16, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I would disagree with the assessment of Lil’s “Argue With It” response. Sometimes feedback is confused, muddled or directly contradictory (somewhat true in Lil’s case, and certainly in the business world). Sometimes argument — not backtalk, but arguing one side verses the other — is necessary and constructive.
I think Lil was right in calling out the contradictions, though not terribly effective in her presentation (eh, what can she do in the 5 seconds she’s got to sort through the muddled mess the judges have given her?)


sherry April 16, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Adam has something else, a solid work ethic. He’s not just better inately than the other contestants; he’s working harder and smarter. He did get negative criticism early on, and he took it all in. He has admitted he did. And apparently the others appreciate him and even go to him when they need advice or comfort. Charm, talent, intelligence, and the willingness to take risks — he deserves to win. But what an act to follow —- should AI just pack it in this year?


Cadenza April 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Clay was also very good at acting on feedback, though he didn’t always receive it with the humilty of Adam who I don’t think is aware of exactly how wonderful he is.

Best contestant ever? Definitely. Adam is not just the best contestant ever in American Idol but in any of the talent shows that I have watched in Canada, Latin America, GB and Australia.

This guy is not just an excellent performer and outstanding vocalist. He has that elusive thing called star quality, yet has the humility, respect and intelligence that you say.

Truly exceptional.


Alx April 16, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I agree, Adam is the best contestant ever (Cook is not that far behind). Apart from being a brilliant singer (artist, I’d dare to say) I believe he is a great role model, very well mannered, educated, he always says nicely “thank you” to the audience after Ryan tells him he is safe.


Downeast April 16, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Thank you. Great article.

One minor little nit….it’s Kris, not Chris.

After all he’s Adam’s roommate, so he’s all okay in my book!


Mel April 16, 2009 at 4:53 pm

“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.”

PLEASE DO! Each week I am consistently amazed and impressed with the phenomenon that is Adam Lambert. Getting such enthusiastic praise again and again really risks audience backlash, but his honest appreciation allows him to walk that fine line without seeming smug or faux humble. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on other aspects of the Idol experience that can help in real life.

Excellent column!


misty April 16, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Actually, I think it is hard to accept praise without coming off as falsely humble or conceited. I think Adam is handling it exactly right.


nellie desousa April 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Its easy to look appreciative when all the judges are fawning over you all the time. these are not good examples


TKate April 16, 2009 at 11:40 am


What an excellent, thoughtful analysis! It s one of the few intelligent commentaries about AI I have ever read. Tx.

And, YES Adam is the best American Idol ever. It doesn’t even matter if he wins (but he will.)


gerritv April 16, 2009 at 10:19 am

Actually the best contestant ever at receiving criticism and working with it to improve was season 2’s Clay Aiken.

Watching each episode is like observing an evolutionary process a step at a time.

One experiences his growth from week to week until what ‘was’ when it started is completely different when it ends.


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