No one likes to hear that they are not doing well, have weaknesses, or are not measuring up in some way. As leaders it often falls to us to give this kind of feedback to others, and those can be difficult, uncomfortable conversations. But what about receiving critical feedback?
Most people aren’t actively seeking discomfort. But if we are ever to improve, personally and professionally, we need to actually pursue uncomfortable criticism and lean in to it. Here’s a short story about one person who did, and what we can learn from his experience to make ourselves a little bit better.
Not Cut Out for This…
Adam was terrified of public speaking and it showed. As a guest lecturer, his delivery was dry and uninteresting, and students were so distracted by his nervousness that it made them physically shake in their seats. At a teaching interview he was told that he would never make it in the classroom – he didn’t have what it took to command the respect of his students.
Problem was, this was his chosen career field. He had to find a way to get better, and he knew that getting feedback was part of the answer. So after every guest lecture, he handed out surveys for students to fill out, asking how he could be more engaging and effective in his presentations.
He got what he asked for; many of the critical comments were not easy to take. Regardless, he sifted through them, found actionable ways to improve, and worked hard on becoming better. Following one suggestion, he added more personal stories and interesting examples to illustrate his points.
Soon he was teaching his own class instead of guest lecturing in others. But that didn’t stop his efforts to improve; if anything, he intensified them.
That first term he asked his class for anonymous feedback. Then did something that I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do: he emailed the responses, all of them, out to his class. The good, the bad, and the ugly was out there for everyone to see.
At the beginning of the next class, he began with an analysis of the themes, and then shared his plans to act on that feedback to get better. And it worked.
As he shares in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, over time Adam Grant improved to the point that he became The Wharton School of Business’ top-rated professor. He still does surveys today, asking for feedback, openly sharing the results, and making changes to his teaching style.
To grow, we have to be ready to step out of our comfort zone and embrace the discomfort that comes with learning to be better. Here are seven ways that can help.
1. Find the courage. It couldn’t have been an easy thing for Grant to ask for feedback. Especially from students, in front of whom he probably hoped to appear as an authority, and knowing that a lot of it would be negative. It took courage to do that.
Perhaps a way to help find the courage is to ask this question: Do we want to live with the dull ache of a rotting tooth, or face our fear of the dentist and get it taken care of.
2. Come from a place of humility. Any assessment of how we are doing as leaders has to include the perspective of those being led. Yet to ask for input is to admit we may have weaknesses and faults. Perhaps the thing to keep in mind is that to lead is to serve; for our teams to excel we need to give them the best possible leadership, and that means being willing to listen to what others have to say.
3. Focus on the behaviors. When we expose ourselves to criticism, it can be an emotional event. We are tempted to deny or justify so we can avoid having to accept what we are hearing. We may even be tempted to fire back at others, but none of that takes us in a helpful direction. Instead of thinking about how to defend ourselves, focus on what we can do better.
4. Take action. As Grant did, start with some analysis. Look for trends and themes that recur and identify concrete things you can do to improve. List and prioritize them, then start doing them.
5. Establish accountability. One of the uniquely powerful techniques Grant used was public accountability. By sharing what he was being told, he put additional pressure on himself to do something about it. And through this sharing, his students became interested and invested in his personal journey to improve. After all, as he got better, so did their own classroom experience.
6. Iterate. Grant didn’t just get one evaluation, make a few corrections and call it good. Growth is an iterative process with incremental progress along the way. Get the feedback, reflect, make adjustments, get more feedback, and repeat. Like learning to play an instrument or building your fitness, one practice or a single visit to the gym is not going to get you where you want to go.
Seeking Discomfort – The Takeaway
Grant’s journey to becoming a great teacher wasn’t a comfortable one by any means. But by seeking discomfort, embracing the feedback he needed to hear with an open mind, and taking action, he became better. The same can be true for any of us. In fact, it may be more dangerous for us not to seek that discomfort; things that aren’t growing are dying.
7. Show the way. There’s something else that seeking the discomfort of honest feedback does: it opens the door for others. By exposing ourselves to candid feedback, it makes it easier for others to do the same.
And in that sense, we are making other parts of our role as leader easier – giving candid feedback and having hard conversations with others. By being an example.