Web-based meetings with global teams. Strategy discussions on endless email threads. Social networking with "electronic" associates and friends. While powerful technological advances allow us to make instant virtual connections with our colleagues, they also contribute to a growing problem in business today. Increased connections aren't the same thing as productive connections. In fact, the decline in strong, effective business relationships is now taking a measurable toll: more careers seem stalled, more teams are struggling to perform, and more companies are suffering from unproductive workplace behavior. Ironically, all of those digital connections are creating a serious personal disconnect.
Gone are the days when we would carve out time every Friday morning to meet over breakfast with a seasoned adviser. Our mentors had time to discuss our progress, our interpersonal challenges, even walk us through options for handling difficult situations at work. Today, we rarely have time to reach out for sound advice and candid guidance. With quick rotational assignments and tight deadlines, our supervisors may not have the bandwidth or the inclination to provide the kind of support that historically transformed promising professionals into powerful leaders. Even trading meaningful suggestions and insights about our team interactions with co-workers over lunch seems to be a thing of the past.
Clearly, the solution doesn't involve opting out of the Internet or giving up our mobile phones to restore the integrity of our business relationships. But it does mean that we need a more specific and proactive strategy to gather the necessary feedback to maximize our career growth.
Why is personal feedback essential?
A quick glance at the latest spreadsheet will tell us if we're on track to meet our department goals, but measuring our social fluency requires input from the people around us. How well do we communicate and collaborate with others? Are we effective at influencing our peers? How do we handle leadership roles? Those skills determine our success much more than the credentials listed on our resumes. But to evaluate and improve those skills, we need honest feedback from colleagues and co-workers we trust. Otherwise we run the risk of unintentionally sabotaging our careers with subtle behaviors that could hold us back -- what I call professional "blind spots."
How do blind spots impact our careers?
Car wrecks don't just happen to careless drivers. We can make every effort to look for other cars before changing lanes, but accidents still occur if we have an obstructed view. Sometimes the only way to know what's in the blind spot is to ask someone who can see from a different perspective. The same thing happens in our business relationships.
Our professional blind spots are areas where there's a gap between our intended impact on others and the actual interpretation. For example, we might think our enthusiasm to share ideas with our team members is helpful, while they perceive it as overbearing. Or our intention to be taken seriously by maintaining a subdued professional demeanor at all times might be interpreted as cold and unapproachable. Even if we are doing everything else "right" in our careers and building the perfect resumes, these subtle behaviors could be inadvertently sending the wrong messages and preventing our advancement. If we don't know about our blind spots, we can't correct them. And if we don't have a strong network of trusted colleagues who are willing to share that information with us, our careers will likely suffer.
How do we gather the feedback we need?
Uncomfortable or not, we need to know how we're perceived. And that means we need to ask! While this conclusion might seem obvious, many people think that making an educated guess is good enough. Not true. To get an accurate picture of our professional blind spots, we must gather actual feedback from those who have real experience interacting with us in the workplace, observing our behaviors and communication styles.
Pushing beyond the invisible barricades of technology, make the conscious effort to connect on a deeper level with your own team of personal advisors. Search for a true mentor, someone at a higher level who knows your work patterns and is willing to provide ongoing counsel. You should also identify a peer who can evaluate your performance and gently provide an accurate picture of your potential blind spot areas. Most importantly, set aside time to develop and nurture these relationships so that gathering feedback about your social fluency becomes a continuous part of your career strategy.
Topics for discussion with your advisers might include the following:
• What do others perceive as my strongest and most developed skills?
• How do people benefit from working with me?
• What are the results of my communications and interactions with others?
• How do others feel about working with me on a project or team effort?
• What things could I change to be a more effective leader?
How can we eliminate our blind spots?
Whether the comments you collect are positive or negative, push yourself to think of them as tools for your professional development. Analyze them objectively so you can apply them in a more productive manner. Once you've uncovered any blind spots, turn that insight into action. Take steps to close any gaps between your intended and actual impact in the workplace. And since eliminating blind spots is an ongoing process, keep the lines of personal communication open with your mentors and advisers.
Even if technology continues to depersonalize the business world, the most successful leaders today know the value of investing time and energy to maintain solid business relationships. When we have a place to check in, get support and safely hear the truth about our performance, we get the chance to view our professional reputations through the perceptual lens of our colleagues, co-workers and clients. With the distinct benefits of that personal feedback, we can minimize our professional blind spots, improve our workplace reputations, and create a significant edge in building our careers -- even when we're bombarded by technology's ironic illusion of connectivity.