Recently, I came across a study about career advancement within a company that surveyed over 2,000 CEOs and 18,000 C-suite leaders since 1995. What researchers found was that the careers of many seemingly talented executives stalled or suffered derailment because of trivial issues that were entirely fixable.
These results prompted the researchers to look at a sample of strong performers who were turned down for C-Suite positions. By reviewing detailed assessments of their capabilities, they discovered 62 percent had at least one small issue that was holding them back from the promotion, while 10 percent had more than one. On top of this, for 35 percent of the executives in the sample, these trivial issues were among the top three risks that influence an individual’s fitness for a role.
The analysis uncovered the most common types of shortcomings included executive presence, communication style, peer-level relationships, excessive optimism, and perfectionism. Often professionals could build their careers despite these small issues, but only to a limited point. Once they started vying for more elevated positions, the seemingly innocent shortcomings negatively impacted an otherwise healthy career trajectory.
After reading this information, I wondered how the careers of these executives might have looked if they had engaged in one activity that could be almost guaranteed to illuminate these minor shortcomings. That one activity is routinely asking for feedback.
Straightforward feedback of most types — critical or constructive — is often avoided outside of mandatory annual reviews. In personal relationships, feedback usually shows up as subtle hints or passive-aggressive behavior, and only shifts to more direct communication when a situation has become untenable, and one person feels the need to say something. However, constructive, neutral feedback that lacks blame, shame, guilt or other negative baggage, is one of the greatest gifts you can give or receive from someone. Sometimes it’s the piece you need to finally address that part of your behavior you know deep down requires modification. Other times feedback gives you the courage to make a long overdue change and leave your comfort zone to grow yourself in beneficial ways.
Unfortunately, one of the most significant problems when it comes to feedback is that people don’t actively look for it, because they place their self-worth on the results. Studies even suggest that the lower one’s self-esteem, the more likely one is to react poorly to negative feedback (Park, Crocker 2008). This means if we are serious about receiving feedback and making the most use of it, it’s critical that we decouple our self-worth from what others think of us.
Luckily, there as some simple ways to reduce your resistance to feedback:
Recognize That Feedback is the Most Basic Mechanism for Growth
As babies, before we even can speak, we learn to navigate the world through feedback. We put our face in the water and come out coughing. We bump our head against a wall and learn what a boundary is. A puppy licks us when we touch its nose. A cat scratches us when we grab its tail. At that early age, there’s no value put on the feedback; while it may feel pleasant or painful, it’s just another experience and the more experiences we have, the more we learn and grow. When we can look forward to feedback — any feedback — as a new opportunity for growth, it becomes easier to appreciate and hold space for even the most difficult conversations.
Be Selective In Your Sources
To begin a systematic feedback loop for yourself, start by asking for it from trusted sources who are close to you, but who don’t depend on you for their emotional, physical or economic well-being. These people could be close friends, colleagues or mentors. When you do offer that invitation, ask specific questions related to things you want or things you think need work. You ask things like, “How do I show up in X instance?” or “What do you think I could do better related to X?” or “I’ve been working to improve X, how do you think I’m doing?”
As you become more comfortable with receiving feedback and implementing changes, you can expand your feedback circle to include people who depend on you more, like family members and subordinates, as well as those who control your career trajectory. Understanding other perspectives on your behavior is incredibly valuable, and having some experience receiving feedback before asking their points of view will help prepare you for objectively taking any criticisms.
Establish a Safe-Space for Feedback
Another challenge we face with giving and receiving feedback is that while people say they are open to receiving it, subconsciously often they are not okay being called out for their imperfections. Many of us can be wary of giving feedback, as it backfired on us in the past. As a result, most givers of feedback will be kind, and perhaps not tell the whole story.
People give the most useful and insightful feedback when they feel they can trust the receiver to take it maturely. You can help create this environment by asking people for their feedback often, taking it well when they do, and implementing changes based on the new information. Over time, they will give you more and more direct feedback because they can trust you to receive it well, and take it seriously.
Be Honest About Defensiveness
If you feel defensive when receiving feedback, do your best not to defend, as it will likely shut down or ramp up the other person. Remember, you approached them for their feedback; they didn’t approach you for your justifications.
Having said that, it’s a good practice to call out the feeling at the moment. You can say things like, “I admit I’m feeling emotionally defensive about this. Can you please give me a moment to collect myself?”
Then, take five long, deep breaths to calm your emotions. If you feel the need to step away from the room, do it, so you can come back more level-headed to continue the conversation. If the conversation ends because you stepped away, take it upon yourself to re-engage with the person and close the loop on your discussion. A dropped conversation might send the unintended signal to the person that you didn’t want their feedback in the first place.
Ask for Feedback Consistently
Consistent feedback over time is a powerful tool we can all use to overcome personal imperfections that could be holding us back. Instead of waiting for your annual review, or for your family member to reach their limit with you, ask people for feedback on a routine basis. They might not always have something for you, but by asking consistently, you establish an atmosphere that signals you are open and eager to learn what they think.
Asking for regular feedback also ensures you are getting a quality sample size. If people are giving you the same feedback, it’s an indication that a particular element of your behavior is likely holding you back in a variety of ways. This makes it pretty hard to hold onto any stories you have about yourself, and creates more impetus to make the changes necessary.
Keep Calm and Improve Over Time
Not all the feedback you receive is going to be positive. Some of it will be neutral, constructive criticism, and some of it will be downright negative. Remember that these little attributes of your behavior that people criticize were developed to help you navigate the problems of your past. Now that you are in a new stage of life, they are not serving you as well. Your life’s on a continuum, and you get a chance to change with the times.
Don’t Put Feedback Off
Some of us fear feedback so much that we put off having tough conversations with people whom we believe are unhappy with us. Whether they are a supervisor, client, customer, or family member, avoiding their feedback doesn’t do anything to improve your situation with these people; in fact, it could make things worse. If you fear that feedback will lead to an ending of a relationship, the chances are that in putting it off the relationship will end eventually anyhow. You are better off addressing the elephant in the room sooner rather than later. Most people will appreciate the forthrightness and think better of you for addressing the unspoken concern because sometimes being wrong is right.
Information that can help us optimize our life all around us, from the internet to books, podcasts, and more. However, often the most actionable and valuable information for improving our lives comes from the people around us. They frequently interact with us, and more often than not have our best interests at heart. Since they already want to see us succeed, it’s only natural that they are our more reliable and credible sources of feedback.
Even though actively seeking feedback can feel scary and dangerous, we all get a chance to be courageous, listen to the perspectives of others and make adjustments. When you do, you’ll demonstrate to the essential people in your life that you are not only willing to make improvements where they are needed, but you are dedicated to following through on achieving those improvements, and your life will be richer for it.
This week, pick one personal attribute you think might be holding you back in attaining your goals. Then solicit feedback from three people on the topic. Pay careful attention to your emotions as you consider asking them, as well as during your conversation. After the evaluation process is over, look for patterns and themes in the responses, then devise a plan to improve yourself in this arena, with specific and measurable results you hope to achieve.
After you’ve spent some time making and incorporating the behavior modifications, go back to those three people and ask them for feedback again on the same topic. Repeat this process as needed until your sources indicate your improvements are working. Then, take it to the next level and ask your sources what other elements about you they think might be holding you back. Before you know it, you’ll be a new and improved you.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Sir Winston Churchill, British politician and Prime Minister (1874 – 1965)