Monday, September 29, 2014

Learn to Love Criticism: Tips for Benefiting from Negative Feedback

My otherwise overly sensitive and hyper vigilant daughter was mad as a wet hen. “Look what a student reviewer wrote on my English 350 paper” She held it up and in the corner was written ‘great job’. I didn’t have time to ask her anything before she said “I was looking forward to this class, there are some great writers and bright students and I expected to get some useful and constructive advice on my writing. ‘Great job’ – that doesn’t help me!”

I was not surprised at her reaction. She had attended grades 6-12 at an arts magnet school with a concentration in drama and lighting design for theater. Working in the theater includes lots of feedback -- positive, constructive and critical. Because she had learned early to expect feedback on her work and how to use it to improve her performance, she felt cheated when she didn’t get it in this college class. And this is from someone who, in other situations, does not respond well to criticism.

I wish this expectation about feedback could be part of workplace cultures. I don’t think anyone is born enjoying constructive criticism -- it is something you have to learn. I always include lessons on how to ask for, receive and use feedback when I train managers and I believe that both the receiver and the giver of feedback have a responsibility to be skillful.

So, if you would like to get better at receiving and using negative feedback, here are a few bits of advice to get you started.
  1. Try to remember that, as unpleasant as bad news may be, at least you can do something about it once you are aware of the situation. I want to know ASAP if I have spinach in my teeth.
  2. When someone is sharing observations and opinions on your work, listen closely and ask clarifying questions. The natural reaction is to explain or offer excuses, but doing that shuts down the information flow. Act like a journalist, collect as much information as you can.
  3. Always take notes, but especially if the news is bad. It gives you something to do to help keep your emotions in check. Also, later you can review what you have written to sort out what is useful and what is not useful.
  4. Even if the content of any particular message is untrue and completely unhelpful, you need to take it well so that you don’t discourage people from ever sharing their thoughts again. If you don’t react well to criticism, you will not get any more and the next time it might be life changing.
  5. Practice. The more you practice accepting and using negative or constructive feedback the better you will get at it. You might even ask a giver of feedback to give you feedback on how easy it was to give you feedback.
The ability and willingness to accept and use feedback, both positive and negative, is one of the principle characteristics of high achievers. The sooner you start building this skill, the faster your rate of improvement and that is worth any short term discomfort. You may even get mad when you don't get criticized.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How Much Better is Your Driving?

How much better are you at driving than you were five years ago? Think about it for a minute, I will wait…   Embarrassing, huh? If you are typical, your driving skills will not change much between the ages of 25 and 65. We do something for 40 years and don’t get any better at it!  

Do your shoes ever come untied? You look down, the laces are flopping and you have to stop and retie them. If so, you are not alone. Between one-half to two-thirds of people do not tie their shoes right. A correctly tied shoelace will not come untied as you are walking. So why are so many people spending precious time attending to errant shoe laces? 

How did you learn to be a leader?  Successful executives told the Center for Creative Leadership that they learned the most from experience -- especially stretch assignments, hardships and mistakes -- and that they prefer to learn this way.  But executives and HR professionals say they are not satisfied with the quantity or quality of their organization’s leaders even though it is where they spend the bulk of their development dollars.  And, a review of multiple studies on leader effectiveness found that only about 50% of leaders are successful. 

The Root Cause
Learning Changes Your Brain
These three problems all stem from the same root cause -- the way we learn. All expertise -- from baseball to brain surgery – comes from physical changes in the structure and functions of the brain.  These changes in your brain allow you to process thoughts, actions, and decisions so quickly and easily that you aren’t even aware of it – you do it on auto-pilot. Automatic processing makes performance effortless – but, skills on auto-pilot never improve. That is why you aren’t any better at driving than you were 5 years ago. In all endeavors, we generally learn a great deal at the beginning and then our performance plateaus.

That’s the bad news.  Here’s the good news.  In the last 10 years, new research has produced an explosion of understanding on how people build skills and reach the highest levels of performance -- and, why most of us never come close to achieving the potential that is easily within our grasp.  We now know that we build expertise in three sequential stages that I call -- Facts, Skills, and Wisdom. The first stage -- learning the basic facts -- is best accomplished with classroom or formal learning; the second stage requires practice of fundamental skills (something we don’t really do at all in workplace learning); and the final stage – building wisdom and deep expertise – comes from experience and reflection. 

Common Problems in Workplace Learning

What does this mean for driving, shoe tying and leadership development?  These three examples highlight common problems with learning and performance improvement in the workplace.  

Just like driving, performance in any endeavor will stall on auto-pilot (and eventually decline) unless you purposefully make an effort to improve.
Effective learning requires an expert teacher, not an expert doer.  If you tie your shoes wrong, it is because someone failed to teach you how to do it correctly. Don’t blame your mom -- auto-pilot makes it difficult for experts to share what they know with new learners. 

You learn leadership (or anything) from experience because stretch assignments and new jobs force you off auto-pilot – you must learn or fail.  But learning on-the-job mixes stages 1 and 3 learning and skips stage 2 altogether. Trying to learn facts, build skills and use them at the same time is, at best, slow and inefficient.  At worst, it puts skills on auto-pilot incorrectly.  (If you’ve been tying your shoes wrong since you were 5 years old, what else could you be doing wrong that you don’t know about yet?) 

So, Here’s What You Do About It:
  • Avoid a performance plateau by continuously stretching yourself just a little beyond your current level of ability.  Always have one area of performance that you are working on improving. 
  • Use expert teachers to help you create your development plans, provide you with basic information and show you how to practice skills before you start to use them.  Ask mentors and supervisors (expert doers) for advice and guidance when you are in the final stage of learning – building wisdom through experience.
  • Sequence your development plans to work with the three stages of learning – Facts, Skills, Wisdom.  Choose one thing to improve and then research and memorize relevant facts, practice fundamental skills until you can do them easily, and turn it all into wisdom by using it on the job. 
Most importantly -- learn how to learn.  Let’s face it; you are responsible for your own development. If you understand just a little about how the brain works, you can learn faster (as much as five times faster), achieve higher, and avoid the stagnation of auto-pilot.  Plus, never retie your shoes again!

Learn more on the SJM+A website

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How Did You Learn To Be A Leader? Was It The Same Way That Foulois Learned To Fly?

How did you learn to be a leader?  Successful executives told the Center for Creative Leadership that they learned through experiences, especially stretch assignments, hardships, and even mistakes. (1)  Currently the majority of leadership is learned on the job and most leaders say that they prefer to learn from experience.  But when executives, HR professionals and leaders are surveyed they say their organizations do not have the quantity or quality of leaders they need and that they are not satisfied with the current development methods.  So, why do we believe that experience is the best way to learn if it is not producing the leaders we need? And why are we not getting better results from this approach?  Perhaps looking at learning in a different context can shed some light on that question.