Do You Want to Improve? Ask Others How
A friend of mine has recently gotten a lot better at his sport of choice. Like, a lot better. The main thing that changed, he told me, was for the last year, every single time he lost a game, he asked his opponent, “what could I be doing better?” And that was it. In the sport in question, apparently it’s quite unusual for anyone to show such humility when they lose. His opponents, it turns out, are only too willing to tell him what was wrong with his game. The major shift was in his ability to realize that the people around him could see the things he was doing wrong, much more easily than he could. And to have the courage to ask people to share that with him. And then, to learn from it, for the next time.
And that was it. In the sport in question, apparently it’s quite unusual for anyone to show such humility when they lose. His opponents, it turns out, are only too willing to tell him what was wrong with his game. The major shift was in his ability to realize that the people around him could see the things he was doing wrong, much more easily than he could. And to have the courage to ask people to share that with him. And then, to learn from it, for the next time.
In the professional field, I’ve started to get earnest about asking for more hard feedback from colleagues. The kind of information you hear when you ask people, “tell me what you really think.” “Don’t hold back.” I mean, I've been asking many people for this kind of feedback, lately. It’s addictive once you get over the initial challenge of swallowing your pride.
As a result, I’ve participated in quite a few recent conversations where hard truths were being discussed about someone(s) or were being shared directly with me. Many of us attempt a variety of strategies to never engage in such conversations. If you’ve committed to the all too popular “ignore it until it goes away” approach, let me advocate that you switch things up a bit.
Why ask a hard question? So, why does one begin to go down the road of seeking real feedback? As professionals, we should always aspire to improve whether by acquiring skills and experiences or knowledge about how we come across in workplace settings. I’m particularly sensitive to ensuring that I am enabling others to share and be heard in all of our interactions. I’m aware that we all have ‘tendencies’ that make it harder for others to do so. For example, I can be an interrupter. Not because I need to take over a conversation, but rather because I want to parse the meaning of a statement. I hope it seems to others that I am super-engaged. However, I know it might not. So, I ask questions to figure that out. I ask to ensure I'm being inclusive and effective.
Who do you ask? You need to ask someone who has standing in your life. These are people that you respect, communicate well with, have a developed trust, and don’t have baggage. Baggage in this context means someone with an agenda that may make you disregard their opinion. So, if you think that the person you engage has a particular opinion that would make you disregard their opinion, I wouldn’t choose them.
When and how do you ask? It can depend on your analysis of the situation. Most often I suggest that you send someone a note and share something like:
Hello (name). Do you have 15-30 minutes available for a conversation in the next few weeks? (You decide the amount of time based on the nature of the topic) I’ve been thinking about how I show up during (Topic/Issue). Thanks for whatever time you can make available.
If something happens during a meeting with multiple parties that was centered on you, or piqued you, I might ask a person of standing if you could chat with them for a few minutes at the end of the meeting, or perhaps later that day. You might say something like:
During our meeting I noticed the following _________. Did you notice that too? How did you interpret my behavior or reaction? Is this something that you’ve seen me do consistently?
I was recently in a meeting with some trusted colleagues who were discussing some very typical behavior from men of a certain age. As someone in the category I asked them directly if and when I demonstrated that behavior. That was a moment when the topic happened to come up with people I knew really well. Their response helped me to understand their experience and what I was doing or could be doing to be better.
What do you do when you get feedback? Well, obviously, you become extremely defensive.
You’ve chosen people you think well of for a reason. Don’t make it so they will never be your eyes and ears again. Above all, don't become argumentative. Rather, offer your thanks to the person sharing and express that your requesting this of them is a sign of your respect for and trust in them. This is a case where your ability to listen is everything. I bet you’re not as good at it as you think.
What do you do with the feedback? This really depends on its nature. If you need to make a slight tweak or behavioral shift, you might be able to ask the person in question to help to hold you accountable or let you know if you fall into patterns you want to avoid. If this is a more fundamental shift, you might seek out a professional who can take you through the process of solving your issue. It’s worth remembering that it takes a lot of guts to tell somebody something unpleasant about themselves. It’s probably better that you take on the labor of fixing it, yourself, rather than then asking the person to help you fix the issue they’ve raised.
I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy or simple thing to do. I choose to improve myself to make work better for others and to be a better leader and colleague. Doing so throughout your life and career will make you someone that others turn to in taking on tough tasks and adept at doing that which is truly transformative in any setting.