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How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes

Do you ever find yourself endlessly mentally replaying situations in which you wish you’d performed differently? You wish you hadn’t said that dumb thing. You wish you’d volunteered for that project that’s now winning accolades. You wish you’d spoken up. You wish you hadn’t dropped the ball with that potential client.

Overthinking in this way is called rumination. While we worry about what might occur in the future, we ruminate about events that have already happened. A ruminative reaction to an event often triggers memories of similar situations from the past and an unproductive focus on the gap between the real and ideal self. Prompted by this one event, you begin to chastise yourself for not being more of something…organized, ambitious, smart, disciplined, or charismatic.

Rumination isn’t just unpleasant. It’s closely linked to poor problem-solving, anxiety, and depression. The good news is that there are effective solutions for breaking yourself out of this rut, and they’re simpler than you might think.

Identify your most common triggers. You can’t quell rumination without noticing that you’re doing it, but people aren’t always able to spot it in themselves. A great way to get better at this is to think about what has triggered you in the past. Your list might look something like:

  • Collaborating with people I don’t yet trust
  • Being around people who seem smarter or more ambitious
  • Taking a step up in my career
  • Making major money decisions

Notice if the dominant pattern of your rumination is blaming yourself or blaming others. Most heavy ruminators lean towards one or the other of these.

Get psychological distance. Next, you need to put some psychological distance between you and the things you ruminate about. For instance, you might feel concerned about how you’re perceived by people who have no impact on your success, get hung up about very small amounts of money, or see yourself as an underachiever despite the fact that objectively you’re doing very well. One way to start to get this distance is by labeling what’s running through your head as thoughts and feelings, a tactic described in this article on emotional agility. So instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” you might say, “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” You can even be more light-hearted about it: “Oh, that’s just my ruminating mind overheating again.”

Recognizing the absurdity in some of your reactions can also help you take them less seriously. Look for any subtle entitlement or self-absorption hidden in your ruminations. Do you expect things to always go your way? Do you tend to believe people are scrutinizing you when, in reality, they’re probably thinking about themselves? Do you spend time comparing yourself to business superstars or celebrities? Entitlement and personalizing can indicate that you tend to think the world revolves around you. If applicable, try to see the irony in being both narcissistic and insecure, rather than viewing it as an indictment on your character. You can even try imagining an ultra-neurotic TV character version of yourself. Not every rumination topic is appropriate for this strategy but catch any that are.

Distinguish between ruminating and problem solving. Occasionally you might have a useful insight while ruminating, but mostly it’s avoidance coping. Generally, the more people ruminate, the less effective they are at problem solving. Either they don’t think of solutions or don’t pursue them quickly or effectively. For instance, one study showed that women who were heavy ruminators took over a month longer to seek medical care after finding a breast lump. To shift from rumination to improvement mode, ask yourself, “What’s the best choice right now, given the reality of the situation?” Start by taking one step, even if it’s not the most perfect or comprehensive thing you could do. This strategy is particularly relevant for perfectionists. If you’re ruminating about a mistake you’ve made, adopt a strategy that will lessen the likelihood of it happening again.

Train your brain to become non-stick. As soon as you notice you’re ruminating, try to distract yourself for a few minutes. Engage in an activity that’s short and mentally absorbing but not extraordinarily difficult, like spending 10 minutes filling out an expense report. The activity you pick should be one that requires you to concentrate. In some situations, you might be able to just refocus your attention on what you’re supposed to be doing. You might think: “How could something so simple help with my complex, emotional problem?” But this technique can be surprisingly effective.

Physical activity, such as jogging or walking, can also calm a mind that’s prone to rumination. Meditation or yoga can be especially helpful for protecting yourself from sticky thoughts and learning not to over-engage with them. These practices ask you to notice when your mind has wandered off to the past or future and bring it back to what’s happening in the present (often your breathing or other sensations in your body or surroundings.)  This is exactly the skill you need for coping with moments of rumination.

Check your thinking for errors. Sometimes rumination is triggered by cognitive errors. The catch-22 is that you’re not likely to be very good at detecting distorted thinking when you’re ruminating, since it clouds thinking. The solution is to develop a good understanding of your typical thinking errors, over time, in calm moments so that you’re still able to recognize them when you’re feeling heightened emotions. Here’s a personal example: I’ll often read a work-related email and zone in on one or two sentences that irritate or upset me and then misinterpret the overall tone of the message as demanding or dismissive. But, because I’m aware of this pattern, I’ve learned to not ruminate over my initial impressions. Instead, I read the email again after a day’s cool down, and usually see that I had a biased impression of it.

Other common cognitive errors include setting too-high self-expectations, misinterpreting others’ expectations of you, underestimating the extent to which other smart people struggle with what’s troubling you, and making mountains out of molehills. If you’re ruminating about someone else’s behavior and attributing a cause to that behavior, at least entertain the idea that your explanation is wrong and try to accept that you might never know the truth. Recognizing that we often won’t understand the reasons for someone else’s behavior is a hugely important skill in reducing rumination.

Rumination is a widespread problem. Before you can break out of it, you need to become more aware of when you’re doing it and have resistance strategies ready to go. This takes time and effort. But it’s important — for your mental health and productivity — to try to nip it in the bud. So, before you go deep into your next “would have, should have, could have” spiral, give one or more of these ideas a go.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


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Set the Conditions for Anyone on Your Team to Be Creative

One of the most damaging myths about creativity is that there is a specific “creative personality” that some people have and others don’t. Yet in decades of creativity research, no such trait has ever been identified. The truth is that anybody can be creative, given the right opportunities and context.

If you don’t believe me, take the least creative person in your office out for lunch — someone who doesn’t seem to have a creative bone in their body. Chances are, you’ll find some secret passion, pursued outside of office hours, into which they pour their creative energies. They just aren’t applying those energies to their day jobs.

The secret to unlocking creativity is not to look for more creative people, but to unlock more creativity from the people who already work for you. The same body of creativity research that finds no distinct “creative personality” is incredibly consistent about what leads to creative work, and they are all things you can implement within your team. Here’s what you need to do:

Cultivate Expertise

One of the things that creativity researchers have consistently found for decades is that expertise is absolutely essential for producing top-notch creative work — and the expertise needs to be specific to a particular field or domain. So the first step to being creative is to become an expert in a particular area.

 

The reason expertise is so important is that you need to be an expert in a specific field to understand what the important problems are and what would constitute an important new solution. Einstein, for instance, studied physics intensely for years to understand the basic physical model for time and space before he understood that there was an inherent flaw in that model.

So how do you cultivate expertise? Performance expert Anders Ericsson has studied that problem for decades and found that the crucial element is deliberate practice. You need to identify the components of a skill, offer coaching, and encourage employees to work on weak areas. That goes far beyond the intermittent training that most organizations do.

For example, one skill that Amazon has identified as crucial to performance is writing. Employees need to constantly write six-page memos, even for introducing small product features throughout their careers at the company. They consistently receive coaching and feedback and need to write good memos in order to advance within the company.

Any company can replicate Amazon’s memo-writing policy. What’s not so easily replicated is the intense commitment to cultivating writing expertise that the company has prioritized for years.

Encourage Exploration

While deep expertise in a given field is absolutely essential for real creativity, it is not sufficient. Look at any great body of creative work and you’ll find a crucial insight that came from outside the original domain. It is often a seemingly random piece of insight that transforms ordinary work into something very different. For example, it was a random visit to a museum that inspired Picasso’s African period. Charles Darwin spent years studying fossils and thinking about evolution until he came across a 40 year-old economics essay by Thomas Malthus that led to his theory of natural selection. The philosophy of David Hume helped lead Einstein to special relativity.

 

More recently, a team of researchers analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work is far more likely to come from a team of experts in one field working with a specialist in something very different. It is that combination of expertise, exploration, and collaboration that leads to truly breakthrough ideas.

That is how Google’s “20% time” policy is able to act as a human-powered search engine for new ideas. By allowing employees to work on projects unrelated to their formal job descriptions 20% of the time, people with varied experiences and expertise can combine their efforts in a way that would be extremely unlikely in a planned company initiative.

Empower Your People with Technology

In Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, he recounts how the medieval master would study nature, from anatomy to geological formations, to guide his art. Now Leonardo was clearly a genius of historical proportions, but think about how much more efficient he would have been with a decent search engine.

One of the most overlooked aspects of innovation is how much technology can enhance productivity. Part of the reason is because it makes the two factors noted above, acquiring domain expertise and exploring adjacencies, so much easier. However, another reason is because it frees up time to allow for more experimentation.

You can see this at work at Pixar, which was originally a technology company that began shooting short films to demonstrate the capabilities of its original product, animation software. However, as they were experimenting with the technology, they also found themselves experimenting with storytelling, and those experiments led them to become one of the most highly acclaimed studios in history.

As Pixar founder Ed Catmull put it in his memoir, Creativity Inc., “Every one of our films, when we start off, they suck…Our job is to take it from something that sucks to something that doesn’t suck. That’s the hard part.” It is that kind of continual iteration that technology makes possible, and that makes truly great creative work possible.

Reward Persistence

Far too often, we think of creativity as an initial, brilliant spark followed by a straightforward period of execution, but as Catmull’s comment above shows, that’s not true in the least. In his book, he calls early ideas “ugly babies” and stresses the need to protect them from being judged too quickly. Yet most organizations do just the opposite. Any idea that doesn’t show immediate promise is typically killed quickly and without remorse.

One firm that has been able to buck this trend is IBM. Its research division routinely pursues seemingly outlandish ideas long before they are commercially viable. For example, a team at IBM successfully performed the first quantum teleportation in 1993, when the company was in dire financial straits, with absolutely no financial benefit.

However, the research wasn’t particularly expensive, and the company has continued to support the work for the last 25 years. Today, it is a leader in quantum computing — a market potentially worth billions — because it stuck with it. That’s why IBM, despite its ups and downs, remains a highly profitable company while so many of its former rivals are long gone.

Kevin Ashton, who first came up with the idea for RFID chips, wrote in his book, How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Yet all too often, organizations do quit. They expect their “babies” to be beautiful from the start. They see creation as an event rather than a process, don’t invest in expertise or exploration, and refuse to tolerate wrong turns and dead ends. Is it any wonder that so few are able to produce anything truly new and different?


Greg Satell is an author, speaker, and advisor. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, was chosen as one of the best business books of 2017 by 800-CEO-READ. His new book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, will be published by McGraw-Hill in April, 2019. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.


 
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How to Stop Delegating and Start Teaching

As a college professor, I regularly train PhD students. In psychology and most fields of science, students are assigned to a project early on in their studies and learn key skills through an apprenticeship model. Many go on to projects related to more specific research goals, and are eventually taught to design their own studies — a slow and painstaking process. Each step, from idea development and design to data analysis and reporting, requires a lot of supervision. It would generally be faster for lab directors to hire employees to carry out these studies instead, or to do all the heavy lifting themselves.

But, then, who would train the next generation of scientists?

Managers who have difficulty delegating tasks can learn from this process — particularly if your workload has become overwhelming, or you need someone to pick up the slack when you are out of town. The hardest part about delegating a task to someone else is trusting that they will do it well. And many managers are reluctant to turn over their responsibilities to someone who may not meet that expectation.

But there is a problem with this mindset. Managers need to stop thinking of passing off responsibilities as delegating — period. If you do, then you will only assign your employees high-level tasks when you don’t have time to do them. Until then, you will continue doing everything yourself. This is not an uncommon behavior. After all, you are probably better at doing your job than your direct reports, who have less experience in your role.

The problem with this style of delegation is that it sets your employees up for failure. A coach wouldn’t let an athlete go into a big game without practicing extensively beforehand. Managers should share this same mentality. When you assign someone a task for the first time — with no prior training — simply because you are unavailable to do it, their chances of succeeding are slim. You also run the risk of damaging team morale. Employees might get the impression that they are not capable of doing complex work if they are too overwhelmed by the task.

As a manager, a central part of your job is to train and develop people. This includes people who want to move into leadership roles, similar to yours, one day. When you take on the mindset of a trainer — instead of a manager delegating work — you will naturally look for ways to give a little more responsibility to the people who work for you. And those people who put in effort, and show an aptitude for the work, should be given more opportunities to try new, challenging tasks.

To start, try to gauge who on your team genuinely wants to move up in the organization, and identify their main areas of interest. Create a development plan for them and write down the skills they will need in order to reach their goals. Then, focus on giving them assignments that require those skills, as well as any tasks you think they are curious to explore. Often, people need a nudge to focus on their weaknesses — particularly ones that they are convinced fall out of their wheelhouse.

Structure the experience so that your employees are able to work their way up to a challenging task. Give them a series of practice sessions. The first time you introduce a task to someone, you might want them to experience it as a ride-along. Just let them shadow you while you explain some of the key points. Then, give them a piece to do on their own with your supervision. Only let them carry the full load when you sense that they are ready.

For example, you might want to teach someone how to run a weekly progress meeting while you are out. Start by training them when you are in the office. Have them watch you formulate the agenda and think through the issues that will be discussed. Then, the next time, let them create an agenda of their own, but critique it. Give them a chance to run part of the meeting with your supervision. That way, they are ready to run a full meeting on their own when the time comes. By doing this, you are both helping your team reach their career goals, and training them to take on some of your own responsibilities.

Taking on some of your direct reports as apprentices is an effort. It will take extra time out of your already busy week. You will have to check their work carefully at first to make sure that it is up to your standards. You will have to teach them not only how to do the tasks, but also, why the tasks are done that way. You will have to call on them to help fix any problems that arise from the work they’ve done, because practice is how they will learn. And your own productivity may slow down as a result of the time you spend mentoring others.

When you make this kind of training a regular part of your job, though, delegating tasks becomes easy. You will have created a team of trusted associates who can step in and help when you are overwhelmed or out of the office. And, as an added bonus, you have also groomed your successors. After all, as the old saying goes, if you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.


 
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What to Do When Your Boss Won’t Advocate for You

Having a great boss is a potentially life-changing gift. On the other hand, many of us know firsthand that having a bad boss can cause a lot of drama, headaches, and stress. While it’s easy to love the great bosses and flee the bad ones, there’s one kind of boss that’s much less straightforward to navigate: the boss who doesn’t advocate for you.

You might not even know that you have one. Most advocacy happens behind the scenes and in conversations to which you yourself are not privy. As the adage goes, 80% of what’s said about you is said when you’re not in the room. Non-advocating bosses can refuse to bring up your name favorably in the promotion conversation. They can withhold critical developmental feedback and stunt your growth. And they can even overtly undermine you and attempt to sabotage your long-term career prospects.

When you discover you have a boss who isn’t advocating for you, the knee-jerk reaction is often to advocate for yourself and become your own PR machine. That’s often a mistake. Too much blatant self-promotion in the workplace can backfire and signal that you are narcissistic, egotistical, and ultimately unconcerned about the greater good. You ideally want others tooting your horn for you. Before taking action to close this critical advocacy gap, you’ll want to understand why your boss isn’t advocating for you.

First, consider the possibility that you are actually the problem. In other words, you may not have a bad boss — you just might not have developed enough or demonstrated the skill necessary for the boss to advocate for your advancement yet. Observe the characteristics and accomplishments of the rising stars around you to see where you might improve. Proactively solicit the gift of your boss’s feedback and ask what it would take to earn their advocacy. And perhaps consider getting a coach to help you make the improvements necessary to earn your manager’s advocacy. Seeking and applying your boss’s advice could potentially move them to advocate on your behalf.

When I first started teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, I met with the dean to find out her expectations. I wanted to understand her perspective on what excellence looks like in my role so I could be intentional about my professional growth. Having these conversations early on with your boss can guide your goal-setting and position you to advance. Without this type of feedback, you might be falling short of your boss’s expectations for promotability and not even know it.

Assuming your performance is strong — and ideally, exceeds expectations — if your boss isn’t advocating for you, the issue likely lies with your boss. While it may not necessarily be your fault, it is your problem. You owe it to yourself to find a workable strategy to advance your career. Here are three steps you can take to navigate the advocacy gap.

Release your boss from your unmet expectations for advocacy. As unfair and frustrating as it seems when your boss doesn’t advocate for you, it’s in your best interest not to take it personally. There are countless possible reasons why your boss isn’t advocating for you. Your boss might be insecure and see you as competition. Your boss may suffer from deep unconscious biases that lead to unfair evaluations of your performance and suitability for bigger roles. Perhaps your boss is trying to advocate for you but lacks the social capital and credibility to successfully advocate for anyone. Or, perhaps your boss may simply not want to be your champion. Whatever the reason may be for the advocacy gap, forcing, manipulating, or shaming someone into being your advocate won’t work. Let go of whatever anger or hurt you have developed because of your boss.

Find another advocate. Ideally, you would have a direct supervisor going to bat for you from the get-go, but your boss isn’t the only person in the organization who can advocate for you. There are other influencers who can give you the boost you need. To navigate your advocacy gap, you want to identify and win the support of executive sponsors. The ideal sponsor is a powerful, high-ranking ally within your organization who will bring up your name with the right people at the right time so that you gain access to opportunity. Your sponsor is your champion in the organization — and sometimes even beyond it.

Many people confuse mentors with sponsors. In short, mentors counsel you, sponsors accelerate you. You don’t want to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. This is particularly important for women and people of color for whom, research shows, hard work alone is usually not enough to get noticed.

Sponsors typically choose their protégés. So, you’ll want to strategically increase your visibility to gain their interest instead of explicitly soliciting their advocacy. For one, produce consistently excellent work. Raise your hand to participate in organization-wide task forces and cross-functional teams. By adding value to important strategic projects for the organization, you’ll build your skillset, add to your experiences, and interact with new people. That way you can develop a reputation for being a reliable, growth-minded leader who is focused on the organization’s objectives. Make it clear that it’s in the organization’s best interest to retain and advance you.

Build your network inside and outside of the organization. The plain truth is that the best leaders have what I call 360° advocacy — that is, advocacy from those above them, those beside them (peers), and their direct reports. Don’t underestimate the value of your peers and your direct reports in bringing your name up and speaking well of you. Being good to people and doing the right thing by people — especially those who may lack formal power in your organization — can cause them to want to advocate on your behalf. Finally, being an engaged citizen beyond your workplace in your industry or your community can help as well. You never know who is connected to whom and how. Sometimes, generating positive buzz beyond the workplace can prompt your organization to take stock of how great an asset you are.

 We all need champions who are willing to advocate for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. And when your boss doesn’t do it, it can be downright challenging. But it doesn’t have to stop your progress and career advancement. You could be just one project, one committee, or one conversation away from getting noticed for who you are, what you do, and your potential to achieve even more.


Nicholas Pearce is a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He’s also the CEO of The Vocati Group, a global executive consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @napphd.


 
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The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback


Feedback, as they say, is a gift. Research bears this out, suggesting that it’s a key driver of performance and leadership effectiveness. Negative feedback in particular can be valuable because it allows us to monitor our performance and alerts us to important changes we need to make. And indeed, leaders who ask for critical feedback are seenas more effective by superiors, employees, and peers, while those who seek primarily positive feedback are rated lower in effectiveness.

But processing and acting on negative feedback is not always easy. It can make usdefensive, angry, and self-conscious, which subsequently impairs our effectiveness. What’s more, we can’t take all feedback we receive at face value. While critical feedback can frequently be given objectively and with the purest of motives, it can also be inaccurate and/or nefarious in nature: a coworker who wants to throw us off our game; a boss who has completely unachievable expectations; an employee who is scared to speak truth to power; a friend who projects her own issues onto us. It’s hard to know what is real and what should be filtered out.

There are plenty of resources available on how to ask for critical feedback, but there’s comparatively little guidance on how to navigate the hard feedback we receive. Here are five empirically supported actions to help you hear critical feedback openly and calmly, intentionally mine it for insight, and harness it to improve without collateral damage to your confidence and self-concept.

1. Don’t rush to react

In my 15 years as an organizational psychologist and executive coach, I’ve seen just about every possible reaction to critical feedback. Some especially memorable responses have included punching a wall, accusing me of making their feedback up, and crying so uncontrollably that we had to reschedule the session. (Encouragingly, all three ended up making dramatic improvements once their initial emotions faded.)

All of these reactions are completely understandable. As renowned psychologist William Swann put it, when humans receive feedback that conflicts with our self-image, we “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [we] recognize that [our] very existence is threatened.”

As part of a research program for my new book, Insight, my team conducted dozens of interviews with people who’d made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. These participants reported frequently seeking critical feedback that would help them improve. But they weren’t necessarily fond of the experience. One participant, a non-profit executive, quipped, “Are you kidding? I hate hearing that I’m not perfect!” We found this reassuring — even the most self-aware among us are still human. But as we dug deeper into what they did next, we saw a clear pattern. Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, these highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.

Specifically, many reported actively working to change the way they saw the feedback — they’d think of upsetting or surprising information as helpful and productive data — something psychologists call cognitive reappraisal. One simple yet effectivereappraisal tool is affect labeling, or putting our feelings into words. For example, after a critical performance review, we might simply acknowledge, “I feel blindsided and a little scared.”

Another technique is self-affirmation. Taking a few minutes to remind ourselves of another important aspect of our identity, besides the one being threatened, lessensour physical response to threat and helps us be more open to critical feedback. For example, if you’ve learned your team sees you as a micromanager, you might remember that you’re a supportive friend, devoted community member, or loving parent. When we see the bigger picture, it helps us put feedback in its proper perspective. Then and only then should we decide how to respond.

2. Get more data

It can be disorienting to learn that people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. I once had a coaching client named Kim, a smart, dedicated manager whose entire world had just been turned upside down by a 360 report. Even though she’d struggled with feelings of insecurity her whole career, her colleagues saw her as aggressive and arrogant in meetings. She had no idea what she was doing to create this perception. (Despite the benefits of some 360s, they can leave many questions unanswered.)

We can’t act on feedback until we truly understand it. Especially when we hear something new, it’s usually a good idea to ask a few trustworthy sources whether they’ve noticed the same behavior. Not only does this give us more detail about what we are doing to create a certain impression, it helps us avoid overcorrecting based on one person’s opinion. After all, as Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius stated, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.”

But who should we ask? Our interviews with highly self-aware people provide some helpful guidance. Surprisingly, most reported keeping their feedback circle relatively small. One customer service manager noted, “I get feedback all the time, but not from all the people. I rely on a small, trusted group I know will tell me the truth.” These “loving critics,” as we named them, were people they trusted and who would be brutally honest with them. Loving critics don’t necessarily need to be people we’re close to (even complete strangers have strangely accurate perceptions of our personalities). Out of the three loving critics Kim selected, I’d argue that the one she knew least well gave her the most valuable information.

With the help of her loving critics, Kim was soon able to build a better picture in her mind of how her behavior was coming across, which gave her the power to make different choices. Months later, Kim’s boss told me that she’d gone from one of his bottom performers to his most valued team member. If she hadn’t taken the time to understand the feedback she was given, it’s hard to imagine such a dramatic transformation.

 

3. Find a harbinger

Even when we’ve significantly improved a certain behavior, it doesn’t mean that the people around us will automatically notice. As leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith has aptly noted, it can be harder to change the perceptions of our behavior than the behavior itself. And if we spend energy improving based on feedback from our colleagues, but those same colleagues don’t notice, it can be discouraging.

For this reason, I also work with my coaching clients on the “public relations” aspects of their behavior. Shortly after receiving their feedback report, we choose one highly visible and symbolic action that will show how serious they are about changing. I once worked with Paul, who ran the radiology department in a large regional medical center. When I interviewed his employees, their morale was suffering. They told me that Paul didn’t seem to understand or care about their day-to-day challenges, which was frustrating and demoralizing.

In my interviews, I kept hearing the same example. A few weeks prior, the doorstop in the entrance to the radiology department had broken off. Employees transporting patients in stretchers had to precariously prop the door open with their hip and quickly squeeze the stretcher through before it closed. They’d put in a work order but weeks later, the doorstop still wasn’t fixed. This relatively minor issue clearly had spoken volumes to Paul’s team.

The plan that Paul created contained many excellent, longer-term strategies to gain his team’s trust. But before he even started executing it, we selected his harbinger. Tomorrow, he would walk down to the department during the busiest time of the day and, in plain view, replace the doorstop with his own two hands. Paul’s employees immediately noticed and appreciated this symbolic step, which made it far easier to spot the other changes he made moving forward.

4. Don’t be a lonely martyr

Getting critical feedback can feel like an exercise in isolation, and not just because it’s uncomfortable in the moment. Research by Francesca Gino, Paul Green, and Brad Staats has shown that we tend to avoid people after they give us negative feedback. And while it can certainly feel easier to see ourselves as the aggrieved party in a vast workplace conspiracy, sequestering ourselves from people who tell us the truth is a big mistake. Gino and her colleagues found that participants who did so experienced declines in performance one year later.

If anything we should pull people who tell us the truth even closer. Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan tracked the behavior changes of more than 11,000 leaders after completing a leadership development program. Those who engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their coworkers showed dramatic improvement, while the improvement of those who didn’t “barely exceeded random chance.”

In this regard, critical feedback can be an excellent excuse to reset our relationships—and with the right approach, our biggest critics can become our greatest champions. When I was conducting interviews with the coworkers of a new coaching client, Rachel, I learned that her colleagues in another department felt disrespected by her lack of proactive communication.

Because the two heads of that department were critical to Rachel’s success, she decided to make the first move. She thanked them for their feedback, sincerely apologized for her part in their conflict, and suggested they reset their expectations moving forward. She also committed to meet with them monthly to seek suggestions on how she could be a better partner. A few months later, she received a glowing email from them thanking her for her responsiveness and partnership. As Rachel worked to make changes, they continued to celebrate with her when things went well and gave her the benefit of the doubt when they didn’t.

5. Remember that change is just one option

Most successful, ambitious people probably believe that when a behavior is limiting their success, they should work to change it. However, the best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes feedback can illuminate flaws that are tightly woven into the very fabric of who we are.

Levi, a successful entrepreneur, is an illustrative example. For most of his career, he saw himself as an effective leader and strong communicator. But after a 360 process, he discovered that his team didn’t share his opinion  not only were their ratings consistently much lower than his self-ratings, the lowest score they gave him was for the competency of communication.

Levi embarked on a process to better understand this feedback and came to the informed conclusion that he might never be genuinely personable, no matter how hard he tried. But instead of stopping there (which may have been tempting), he knew he needed to come clean to his team. He called a company meeting where he admitted that he wasn’t the most likable or communicative leader. Next, he explained to his team that some behaviors were a personal shortcoming and certainly no indication that he didn’t care about or value them. Finally, he asked for their help and understanding as he worked to navigate this weakness.

To Levi’s great surprise, his employees were instantly more understanding. Over time, they even began to (lovingly) joke about some of his communication blunders. Levi saw that as a signal that they were more on his side, even if he couldn’t be the perfect leader. Sometimes the best response to critical feedback is to admit our flaws — first to ourselves, and then to others — while setting expectations for how we are likely to behave. When we let go of the things we cannot change, it frees up the energy to focus on changing the things we can.


Tasha Eurich, PhD, is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author. She is the principal of The Eurich Group, a boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. Her newest book, Insight, delves into the connection between self-awareness and success in the workplace.

 

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