21 Mar 2017
The opinions of trusted friends, colleagues and mentors are essential if we are to improve and develop. But how can you make the most of that feedback?
Words: Michael Caulfield, Sporting Edge
Many of us fear feedback and become insecure and uncomfortable with the idea that someone’s opinion about how we are doing something might be different to our own. But feedback is an invaluable part of self-assessment, a means of understanding our strengths and weaknesses in the eyes of others, seeking reassurance on what we are doing and getting valuable alternative perspectives.
Who, then, should we turn to for feedback? Many of us will avoid seeking the opinions of colleagues or superiors, even if they are the best equipped to provide them, because we don’t want to appear ignorant or inexperienced. We would rather turn to friends and family as they’re more likely to tell us what we want to hear and be sympathetic to our problems.
However, to make better decisions and be better leaders we must seek feedback from a wide circle of people, drawing on the expertise and experience of others in different fields and from those who aren’t afraid to challenge us. Avoid confiding in ‘yes men’ and instead seek out people whose opinion and integrity you know and trust and who are more likely to give you an honest and constructive answer.
A retired major general recently illustrated why honesty is so important, saying to me, “The trouble with being a general is that everyone laughs at your jokes even when they are awful. Worse, they will often agree with you, even if you are wrong, as no one thinks they can challenge you.”
It’s worth asking yourself if you tend to invite being challenged or prefer to go through life wondering if you are getting it right. While general consensus and compliance might seem to provide an easy life it will ultimately result in the same mistakes being repeated over again. Constructive, honest feedback, meanwhile, can lead to a positive change in your behaviour and performance. Ask trusted colleagues and friends also for feedback on your behaviour, because none of us is completely aware of how we come across to others.
FEEDBACK IS NOT INSTRUCTION
It’s important to remember that while anyone can give advice, it won’t always be sensible, sincere or applicable in your situation and you don’t have to follow it. Therefore, just as confidence is needed to seek advice and support, it takes strength of character to decide whether to follow or ignore it.
Never act immediately on advice or feedback. Give yourself time to digest it and figure out whether or not you agree and should act on it. While your initial reaction to an opinion might be to go on the defensive or dismiss it out of hand, given time it may start to make more sense. Vice versa, any kind, supportive words need just as much time to bed in. It’s easy to get carried away with the great feeling when someone supports everything you’re doing, but is that helpful? Are they just telling you what you want to hear?
Get a second, third and fourth opinion if you can, and go to people who will come at the issue from different perspectives or who can bring contrasting experiences to the table. Actively look to find opposing sides of the argument and ask independent parties who will have a fresh take on things.
Great leaders never stop learning, and while they can do that via structured training and education there is an essential practical side that comes from sharing with other leaders our experiences, opportunities, challenges and issues. It is about the ability to ask ‘what did you do when? What would you do if? How did you react to? Can I ask your advice? And has this happened to you?