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What Can I Do to Be a Better...?

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"Soliciting feedback" is just what the words imply. It is when we solicit opinions from people about what we are doing wrong. As simple as it sounds, it is not always so simple. Most people have two problems dealing with negative feedback. This may not sound like many, but they are big problems. The first is we don't want to hear it and the second is we don't want to give it.

The reason we don't want to hear it is because negative feedback is inconsistent with our self-image and so we reject it. Did you know that of all the classes I've taught 95 percent of members believe they are in the top half of their group? While this is statistically impossible, it is psychologically real. Proving to successful people that they are "wrong" works just about as well as making them change.

The reason we don't want to give it is because our leaders and managers have power over us, our paychecks, advancement, and job security. The more successful a person is the more power they have. Combine that power with the fairly predictable "kill the messenger" response to negative feedback and you can see why people don't want to give feedback.

There are some other difficulties with traditional face-to-face negative feedback. Most of them boil down to the fact that it focuses on failures of the past not positive actions for the future. Feedback can reinforce our feelings of failure, and our reactions to this are rarely positive. More than anything, negative feedback shuts us down. We need honest, helpful feedback, which is hard to find.

That's enough about what's wrong with feedback. Let's talk about the good stuff. Feedback is very useful for telling us "where we are." Without it, I couldn't work with my clients. I wouldn't know what the people around my client think about what he or she needs to change. Likewise, without feedback, we wouldn't know if were getting better or worse. We all need feedback to see where we are, where we need to go, and to measure our progress along the way. And I have a foolproof method for securing it.

When I work with coaching clients I always get confidential feedback from their coworkers at the beginning of the process. I enlist each person to help me out. I want them to assist not sabotage the change process. I do this by saying to them, "I'm going to be working with my client for the next year. I don't get paid if she doesn't get better. Better is not defined by me; it is not defined by her. It is defined by you and the other coworkers involved in the process." I then present them with four requests. I ask them to commit to:
  1. Let go of the past.
  2. Tell the truth.
  3. Be supportive and helpful--not cynical or negative.
  4. Pick something to improve themselves, so everyone is focused on more "improving" than "judging."
As you contemplate changing your behavior yourself, without my personal assistance, you will need to do this same thing with your colleagues. Pick about a dozen people with whom you've had professional contact--work friends, peers, colleagues--and ask them to agree to these four commitments. When they do, which they nearly always will, you are ready to begin soliciting feedback from them about yourself.

In my experience, there are a hundred wrong ways to ask for feedback and one right way. Most of us know the wrong ways. We ask people, "What do you think of me?" "How do you feel about me?" "What do you hate about me?" or "What do you like about me?" Think about your colleagues. How many of them are your friends? How many of them really want to express to you their "true" feelings about you, to you?

A better question (and in my opinion the only question that works) is, "How can I do better?" Variations based on circumstances are okay, such as "What can I do to be a better partner at home?" or "What can I do to be a better leader of the group?" You get the idea. Pure issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to 1) solicit advice rather than criticism, b) be directed towards the future, and c) be couched in a way that suggests you are in fact going to try to do better.

Finally, when you get the answer, when someone gives you the gift of what you can do to be better, don't respond with your opinion of their advice. It will just sound like denial, rationalization, and objection. Treat every piece of advice as a gift, a compliment, and simply say, "Thank you." No one expects you to act on every piece of advice. Just act on advice that makes sense to you. The people around you will be thrilled!

Please view my new Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The second short video in the series Leadership Is a Contact Sport: Ask accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready?

The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015). Each video will have an accompanying written blog.