In my role at work, I often have the chance to hear senior leaders reflect on what has helped make them successful. They always name their ability to learn from feedback as essential to their long term growth.
But for some reason, whenever anyone gives me feedback, it doesn’t seem to be so helpful. People tend to share criticisms of my actions that don’t make sense given the situation I was facing. Or things that other people should really be fixing about themselves.
Okay – that was sarcasm. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but most people can relate to those feelings. Feedback can be embarrassing, gut-wrenching, or confusing to receive. And the important feedback is most likely to take us by surprise and make us feel defensive.
Of course, the right response to feedback is always gratitude. But, often I find myself trying to evaluate the validity of the feedback as I’m receiving it. This comes off as unreceptive and stubborn.
So here are a few ideas I’ve been trying lately to help.
Take other perspectives. At work, I did an exercise with a group where we chose different words to explain how we experience feedback. Each group then talked about ways their perspective both helped and hindered them. We then discussed how the people to whom we give feedback experience those moments. But, for me, simply understanding that there are range of possible perspectives was incredibly helpful.
“The Shelf.” When you receive feedback, you can choose not to act on it immediately. Instead, imagine noticing it and putting it on a shelf. If you never receive that feedback again, you can choose not to make a change. But, if you hear that same piece of advice repeatedly, you can revisit that decision when you’re ready to address it.
Ask a few questions. Instead of trying to assess the validity of feedback in the moment, focus on really understanding what your friend is saying. You can ask clarifying questions, ask for an example, or ask for a recommendation on a better approach. This will keep you from trying to evaluate what you’re hearing as right or wrong, and instead focus your mind on listening.
Send a thank you note: Because feedback can be stressful, most of us don’t handle it as well in the moment as we’d like. Writing to express gratitude encourages continued feedback, but also shows that you take seriously the insights that were shared.
I had a few interactions with emotion this week. Early in the week I had the opportunity to receive some constructive feedback on my own behavior. Then, later in the week, I had to give feedback to one of my teammates.
I’m always amazed by how difficult feedback can be to receive. There is so much emotion associated with our work and personal lives. We pour so much of ourselves into these parts of our day, so naturally we want to know that we’re doing well.
And if we knew we weren’t doing well, we would have already fixed the issue. So feedback always catches us off guard, always makes us uncomfortable, always comes paired with emotion.
But how can you grow without it?
At the same time I’m thinking about this on a professional level, I have the complete joy of watching my two beautiful kids, currently 27 months and 9 months old. They are so fun! My evenings are filled with scattered toys, raw emotion, and the fascinating little moments of life.
This evening I spent 20 minutes in a negotiation with my son about eating a vitamin, and I won when I offered to let him play with an old hotel key card.
So my point is this: growth isn’t pretty. It’s going to be awkward, full of emotion, and tough. You’ll need patience and a great a sense of humor.
And if you’re in the middle of a period of growth–forgive yourself.
But the result will be incredible. There is nothing that can compare to the joy of seeing a person grow, expand their capabilities, become more tomorrow than they are today.
I was having dinner with a senior leader at my company a few weeks ago. We were discussing the challenges within our respective business units, and a major one we both face is employee retention.
As in most businesses, for us, a stable team is essential for success. So we focus on retaining employees, particularly for the first year after they join the company, and managers are rated and compensated in part on the retention within their team.
But, at the same time, so many factors combine in an individual’s decision to change jobs. Particularly when frontline managers have relatively small teams, a tremendous amount of luck and chance play into the turnover in their organization for a given year.
So I posed this question to my friend: How can you hold someone accountable when so much of this number is luck?
While he recognized the complexity, he gave the straightforward answer: “You have to be able to bend luck.” Leaders need to be able to get results, even for difficult, multifaceted metrics.
I think this is a great insight. But I think the more empowering insight is the assumption at the root of this statement: A good leader can bend luck.
When you care about people, when you have good processes, when do what you can on the factors you can control, you can make a positive impact, even on complicated and tough problems.
There are many things we can’t control–as individuals, as managers, as leaders. But don’t lose the belief that the things you can control will change outcomes for the better.
Because you have a strategy; because you have priorities. Because you have focus.
But saying “No” to a great opportunity is tough.
Every time I say yes to an opportunity that is not in line with my long term strategy or goals, I take away from those opportunities that are. I’m actively investing my time and effort againstwhat I need to do to be successful. My failing to have focus, I can prevent achievement.
So why do I do it?
I think there are three reasons: loss aversion, desire to diversify, and fear of vulnerability.
Loss Aversion is the idea that our fear of a potential loss is greater than our desire for a potential gain. When it comes to career opportunities particularly, we don’t want to shut down the possibility of something great by not devoting time and attention to it. So we apply for everything we might be interested in, even at the cost of real investment in the best opportunities.
Desire to Diversify. When it comes to investing our money, most people seek diversification. So it’s tough to grasp the idea that we should focus on two or three priorities when it comes to investing our time. Here’s why: with career opportunities, we want to stand out—we want to have a clear brand and positioning–not merely match the average that we’re competing against. For this reason we need to pick a few focus areas, rather than pursuing everything.
Fear of Vulnerability. When we try for a few things, we put more of ourselves into them. But that also means that it will hurt more if we fail, and be more obvious to others that we didn’t achieve our goal.
There are a few concepts I try to keep in mind to help me choose to focus.
First, I have a project mindset. The opportunities I pursue today will last a finite period of time: if I set realistic goals in terms of time and achievement, I can do good work, wrap up the effort, and reassess my long term strategy. The choices I make today are not permanent–they’re the path ahead from here for the next year or two: I decide accordingly.
Second, I work to be my own storyteller. When someone listens to me tell the story of my career, they don’t dissect each decision or expect a perfectly smooth path from beginning to end. Instead, they want to hear a compelling narrative that arcs through the turns of the story and speaks to their individual needs. So I take a long term view of my life, reflect on my story, and consider its structure as I make big decisions. I ask myself whether the choice I’m making is the decision that the person I’m working to become would make. I practice telling my story–by writing it down, or by seeking the advice of friends and mentors–to ensure it makes sense and truly resonates.
Finally, I remember that success transfers. With every investment of time and effort, I’ll gain skills, learn lessons, and achieve results. the more positive my results, the more important and clear the lessons that I learn and the skills I gain will be. If I focus, I know I’ll have better results and learn deeper lessons–that will open more doors across every domain in the future.
So if you want to stay focused, keep a project mindset, practice sharing your story, and remember to keep a long term view.
In order to successfully climb a mountain, you need to start with the dream of climbing it. You need to train and practice. You need to get a map and the appropriate gear. You need to make a plan, and follow it, day by day. It’s hard and it takes time.
But all of that starts with the dream, and the actions taken as a result of that vision.
Having a dream, or having a vision that other people don’t have, takes courage and vulnerability. You have to open yourself up to the chance of failing at something you care deeply about, to the heartbreak of setbacks and certainty of obstacles that feel insurmountable.
And living in that state of emotional vulnerability is difficult.
But the vulnerability allows you to have a dream worth working for, and the difficulty teaches you the changes you need to make to accomplish it.
So start with the vulnerability to have a courageous dream consistent with your values. Then articulate it, clarify it, and get to work.
In life and in business, we engage in conversation constantly. Much of our time and effort is spent speaking and listening to other people in meetings of one form or another.
As a manager, we often think about these conversations in terms of their content. We have a meeting in order to make a plan or reach a decision. The goal of the meeting is often to persuade, inform, or learn something specific, with the goal of taking action or making a tangible change.
But as a leader, we need to remember that the conversation itself is a powerful tool, separate from immediate, tangible actions that come from it.
I believe this for a few reasons.
First, people often need to hear an idea multiple times before they remember it. Most people will quote a number between 4-7 repetitions for an average group. This can feel repetitive for the leader, but it’s crucial for the team. So having conversations lets you convey the why, the reason behind the actions, so the team can hear these crucial things enough times to remember them.
Second, we influence and let ourselves be influenced through conversation. When we spend time with someone and speak with them, there is a gentle diffusion of culture that occurs. In organizations, you see almost immediately that the team starts to think like their leader, picking up his or her habits and traits, buying into his or her vision and norms. By having conversations, you’re opening your stories and ideas to other perspectives, and opening yourself to other viewpoints. If you have the attitude or perspective that proves more true, more relevant, and more successful for your organization, you’ll change the beliefs and behaviors of the people around you.
Third, conversation can build relationship. If you can find ways to connect at a human level, to open up and be vulnerable, to prove the psychological safety of dialogue with you to the people around you, you can build authentic, human connections—which are ultimately a person’s most important asset.
It’s difficult to think of dialogue as so important an opportunity. It’s hard to measure or attach a timeline to the benefits, and it’s tough to attribute a change to a set of conversations, instead of a well-though out action.
But don’t let the inertia and ambiguity deceive you: conversations are a vital tool for making positive, lasting change.