The simple answer is, “Blind spots.” We all have them. In the technical literature of psychology they’re referred to as “Scotomas.” A scotoma occurs when an individual can’t see something in themselves that those around them can.
For example, you may perceive yourself to be a benevolent dictator (note: an adjective which only dictators use :-). However, if we were to interview your staff, they may have a different perspective.
Years ago, I remember that I consistently made a mistake that I didn’t realize I was making. I’m an idea guy. I love playing with ideas and figuring out how to make them even better. However, more important to me than that, I love helping people succeed. So, if a staff member came into my office with an idea, my brain would immediately engage and I’d say things like, “That’s a great idea. Have you thought about … Also, here’s a book that you might like … I have some materials on that subject that I think you might find helpful … Oh, and if you’d like some help with this project, here are three people you might want to contact …”
In my mind, I was “helping” that staff member. In their mind, not so much. Instead of simply affirming their idea, I was regularly “hijacking” it and making it my idea. So, while they walked into my office excited about a new idea, they often left with something less than that.
It was a blind spot. And apart from someone speaking into my life and letting me know that I had a scotoma around this, I never would have figured out that my practice of “helping” wasn’t really helpful.
Moreover, to be a better business leader, you and I know that we have to change. As the old adage says, “If you want a different result, you have to do something differently.” It’s hard to do that on our own. But with the help of others, we can become the kind of leader our business or organization needs.
So, to help you get to the place where you regularly invite feedback into your life, here are four thoughts to ponder.
I. There’s No Reason to Fear Feedback
Most people fear feedback, but there’s no reason to fear it. For example,
If you’re giving a talk at a local chamber event or speaking at a conference and someone comes up and offers some critique of your talk, why should you fear that? If they’re wrong, who cares. But, if they’re right, you just received some valuable information that can make you a better communicator and possibly increase your effectiveness before every audience for the rest of your life.
Why should you be afraid of that?
If one of your direct reports comes to you and says, “Hey, I’ve been observing that when we’re in meetings, you tend to listen intently when Sally talks but you tend to cut George off quickly, in almost a dismissive way …” that’s valuable information.
Why should you be afraid of that?
Feedback is nothing more than words. Some of it’s valid. Some isn’t. For example, last week I received a ton of emails from people saying how much they appreciated last week’s post. I also received one unsubscribe email from someone with the comment, written in all caps, “IRRELEVANT MATERIAL.”
Like I said, some feedback is valid, some isn’t. But why be afraid of it. The good news is that some feedback is valid, and its that feedback that can take you and your leadership to the next level.
The only reason to fear feedback is if you’re afraid of reality (a bad idea). If you invite your staff to do a 360 on you and you score a two (on a scale of 1-5) on teamwork, that’s a gift, not a curse. Your team has just told you that you’re not doing as well as you think you are.
So don’t fear critique. It’s a gift to help you become a better you.
II. Let Go of Your Ego
This is the key to welcoming critique/feedback. If you ever ask me to review a document or marketing piece for you you’ll probably see a lot of red on it (and if you’d like to know why, you can read my blog post about an encounter I had with Carl F.H. Henry, one of the great theologians of the 20th century and the editor of Christianity Today for decades).
When anyone of my clients gets one of those papers back, their first emotional response is almost always one of shock. There’s red all over it. Words are crossed off. Punctuation is added. Questions are off to the side. Arrows rearrange paragraphs and ideas. Alternative words are suggested. Etc. It’s not very pretty (and, by the way, I do the same thing with my own writing).
Some people just can’t handle that. In fact, I had one attorney say to me, years ago, “I felt like I was back in fifth grade when I got that back from you. No one talks to me like that anymore.” He then promptly didn’t talk to me for years. Note: He never once addressed the substantive comments I made on something he asked for feedback on, he just didn’t like being critiqued (i.e. his ego got in the way). His loss.
On the other hand, most people, once they get past their initial ego shock realize that all of the editorial changes I’ve suggested are actually in their own best interest (i.e. I only give feedback to help people be better. I have never ever intentionally given anyone feedback to make them worse or to make them feel worse).
The amazing thing is that once you let go of your ego, you’ll discover that you have an amazing capacity to listen and to consider that the feedback someone is giving you is actually for your benefit.
III. Remember That Listening and Agreeing Are Two Different Things
If you’re still thinking, “But what if their feedback isn’t right? What if they don’t have all the information? What if their feedback is malicious in intent (meaning, they want you to feel bad or they want to give you the wrong information)?”, then you simply need to remember that listening and agreeing are two different things.
Just because someone offers you advice, doesn’t mean it’s correct or that you have to take it and act on it. No one on planet earth is omniscient (meaning, knows everything). Moreover, you have ultimate responsibility for your life. So, you don’t have to agree with every critique or edit or idea or evaluation etc.
But, if you want to take your leadership to the next level, you have to learn to LISTEN to every piece of advice without being defensive. Listen first, evaluate second.
Back in my pastoral days I would often have people come and ask for a “meeting” because they were upset with something in the church (i.e. put a couple thousand people together and you’re going to find a lot of different ideas about how church should be done). In each case, I’d ask for their feedback. I’d take notes. I’d then reflect back what they told me to make sure I heard them. And I’d conclude by asking them questions like, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” and “Finally, is there anything you’re trying to communicate to me that you feel like I haven’t heard?” And they’d all say, “No.”
Then a few weeks later, I’d occasionally hear through the grapevine that “Bruce didn’t listen to us,” (which wasn’t true at all). I listened to every comment they made. I took notes. I reflected back. I checked for clarification. But, in their minds, they thought that listening meant agreement–and that’s not correct. I listened and then evaluated which comments were accurate and needed to be acted on and which didn’t. Listening and agreement are not the same thing.
The same goes for you. Listen to everyone. Employees, customers, vendors, board members, fellow business owners and/or entrepreneurs, family members, competitors, etc. Then evaluate what they’ve told you and determine what if anything is accurate and what isn’t. What you need to listen to and change, as well as what you need to disregard and let go of. Just make sure your ego isn’t in the way.
IV. Invite Critique
If you really want to lead a bigger, better, more profitable and successful business, you’ll want to go the next step and cultivate the habit of actually inviting critique into your life. This is why great athletes and business leaders get coaches. They know they need people outside of them to help them see things that they can’t see on their own and to push them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do on their own.
You can do the same thing
- When you create a document or workflow, invite others to critique it and give you their honest feedback (“Red lines welcome.”)
- When you give a talk and someone says, “Great job!” ask them. “Thanks, I appreciate that. But if there’s one thing you think I could have done better, what would that one thing have been?”
- When you’re at work, ask for feedback. Be the model. Be the one who regularly asks questions like, “What do you think is holding me back from being more effective as a leader here in our business?”
The only way to get better is to do something differently–and that quite frequently requires critique from someone else. So, don’t be afraid of critique. It’s a gift. Embrace it, invite it and welcome it into your life. Most people won’t do this (their loss). But if you want to be a better business owner/entrepreneur, you need to invite critique into your life (not push it away).
As Solomon said years ago (and this is one of my all-time favorite proverbs)
“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;
whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.
Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;
rebuke the wise and they will love you.
Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.” Proverbs 9:7-9
In other words, if you want to be a fool, don’t listen to critique. But if you want to be wise, listen, evaluate, make the appropriate changes, and see critique for what it is—a gift to make you a wiser, better and more successful person and leader.
To your accelerated success!
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