Self-Management Skills: Is Feedback Your Gold or Kryptonite
Feedback is the Holy Grail of self-management and emotional intelligence. Feedback should be enthusiastically welcomed, even “negative” feedback. As we shall see, negative feedback isn’t always really negative. That’s just a starting point.
The Holy Grail of obtaining Knowledge of Self (K.O.S.) is feedback. Feedback comes at all of us constantly. It can come from your own internal states, your reactions, your feelings, or your thinking. Feedback can come from very objective sources like a personality or career test. And feedback can come from others.
The trick to feedback, however, is to capture it, decode it, and then implement the take-aways. Without engaging in this three-step self-knowledge process, you can never have success or fit. Wow! If such insight is that important, we better explore it.
How Do You Acquire the Single Most Important Thing?
This morning I was scanning YouTube and stumbled across a video where women were competing in a make-up session. They had to put their make-up on in three minutes without a mirror. If you have ever tried to get dressed without a mirror, you soon learn how essential feedback is. Lipstick smeared? Tie straight? Bedhead hair combed?
You may not think of a mirror as part of a feedback loop, but it is. You look in a mirror, the mirror sends back data, and you then adjust yourself accordingly. The great thing (or the most horrible thing) about a mirror is that it will tell you the truth. A mirror is a perfect feedback source, giving you immediate, accurate, and impersonal feedback. Unfortunately, feedback from other sources isn’t quite so simplistic, reliable, or easy to decode. It is, nevertheless, just as valuable, if not more so.
What are the Three Steps Involved in the Single Most Important Thing?
Three steps are involved in feedback that leads to self-knowledge. The first step in acquiring feedback is to capture data. The second step is to decode it and the third step is to implement it. In the following section, I will address each of these separate steps to help you acquire K.O.S., and thus, your career fit.
According to the author, Peter F. Drucker, we must learn to manage ourselves. We can do so by learning to develop ourselves, working where we make the greatest contribution, and staying mentally alert and engaged during our long working life. Drucker recommends applying a feedback analysis to discover what our strengths are. (Drucker, 1999)
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Step One: Capturing Feedback: Your Career Success Depends on It!
As I was writing this section on feedback, I took a break and went to a restaurant for lunch, grabbing my printed copy to edit. As I was placed my order, the waiter told me they didn’t have the salad dressing I wanted. I feigned despair. I hung my head, uttered a sad moan and bewailed my state. The waiter grinned and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he responded. “I have told them over and over we need to offer that dressing. I get a lot of requests for it. I’ve been here four years. You would think they would listen.”
What irony, I thought, as I handed the menu back to him, he scurried off, and I resumed my editing on feedback. As I’m writing about the need to listen to feedback, my waiter offers a perfect example of feedback being ignored. Businesses ignore it. Individuals ignore it. Bosses ignore it. Employees ignore it. Job seekers ignore it. Why? Because feedback can be intimidating, difficult to hear, and not always accurate. I will address these concerns, but for now, let’s focus on getting feedback.
Welcome & Insist on Feedback
No one likes to perform in a vacuum, with your work bouncing off hollow, reverberating walls. In fact, one researcher (Wanous, 1980) found that when feedback is missing, a person is far more likely to withdraw entirely from an organization over that issue alone. The researcher also found that at no time is this feedback more important than in the early stages of a career or a re-career. Without feedback in those critical first stages, it is easy to get frustrated, feel incapacitated, and ultimately give up.
If you are not getting feedback, ask for it. Be specific. And then listen. Seek both formal and informal channels of feedback. Giving feedback takes time and tact, so if a person takes the time to give it, be receptive, gracious, and grateful. Place a high premium on the commodity of feedback and you are likely to get more of it.
“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.” Winston Churchill, British orator, author, and Prime Minister during WWII 1874-1965
If you have asked for feedback, but not received it, it could be because you are unwittingly blocking it. We block feedback because it is so difficult to hear or puts the responsibility for change on us. Blocking feedback can sometimes be very subtle. People who really don’t want feedback will argue verbally and send out nonverbal signals of disengagement or protest. Sometimes, they will simply shut down the exchange, change the subject, or become defensive. If you are doing this, don’t be surprised when others are not willing to offer input or feedback again.
Another way to block feedback is by disqualifying the person giving it. Perhaps the person giving it has little credibility, communicates it poorly, or delivers it in a way that is hurtful. Just because the messenger and the message are flawed, does not mean it’s inaccurate. Life does not always give us information on our terms. Be slow to discount any feedback. Take it all into consideration. Proverbs 19:20 (New Living Translation, 2007) says “Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life.”
To prevent blocking feedback, don’t ask for something you are not willing to hear. Others soon learn that when someone asks for feedback, it doesn’t necessarily mean they really want it. Be one of those who really want it. Really. One of the best ways to get feedback is to insist upon it and then welcome it.
Self-Observation: Following Yourself Around
Besides directly asking for feedback from others, another way to obtain it is simply by observation of yourself. One way to do this is to Follow Yourself Around. Try being an objective observer of how you process through your life—your decisions, your beliefs, your interactions with others.
What sets human beings apart from animals is that we can think about our thinking. Humans are not just driven by instinct. We can step back and observe our processes. Hopefully, in observing your processes, you come to understand them. As one researcher said (Wales, 2003), “It is vital that you understand your internal processes. It is only through knowing [your] own internal psychological processes that [you] come to understand and interact effectively with the external social processes that surround [you].” Astute self-observation should be as objective as possible and can provide valuable clues to the Knowledge of Self.
Being objective with the information you gather about yourself is not always an easy task (as we shall see in Decoding Feedback). Since that is true, there are ways to seek options that increase your objectivity. One of these options is committing the process to writing and the other is by committing to coaching.
Commit it to Writing
Drucker, who was thought of as the Father of Modern Management and who saw the need for self-management in free-agent careerist long before others did (Drucker, 1999) suggests this exercise: Over the course of a year, write down what you expect will happen whenever you make a key decision or take a key action. At the end of the year, compare the actual results with your expectations. Comparing expectations with reality that is committed to the written word is a good way to force objectivity. Once you have the data, you can then ask yourself some important questions.
What are my strengths? How do I concentrate on them? How do I improve them? And finally, Drucker asked, “Where is my intellectual arrogance causing self-defeating ignorance?” (Drucker, 1999) Committing yourself to record-keeping and putting it in writing is a great way to hold yourself accountable to accuracy. So is having a coach.
Commit to Coaching
According to one researcher (Argyris, 1990) coaching facilitates the raising to awareness of inconsistencies between what one says and does, and what one thinks and feels. These inconsistencies are the problems that get you and I into trouble and coaching is certainly one of those options to bring self-awareness into focus.
Interestingly, in one study, coaching was found to decrease levels of self-reflection but increase levels of insight. (Grant, 2003) Hmmm. How vitally important to note this distinction: Self-reflection does not necessarily create insight. Belly button gazing only gets you so far. Insight, which is your true impetus for change, transition, and success, often comes from interaction with a coach.
“Self-awareness alone without its link into the wider social context is incomplete.”
Seeking and genuinely welcoming feedback is instrumental in obtaining Knowledge of Self (K.O.S.), and thus the larger goal of career fit. Feedback can get you where you want to be. You must regard it as a highly-valued commodity, understanding it is often difficult to obtain and difficult to receive.
In the first step of seeking feedback, don’t try to sort for accuracy. Just gladly receive it. Live your life welcoming input, then subject the process to rigorous evaluation. Decoding it is a separate step entirely and one we can address now.
Step Two: Decoding Feedback: Objective Self Awareness
Why is decoding feedback accurately such a challenge?
Why is decoding feedback accurately such a challenge? Decoding feedback is a challenge because of filters. Very human filters, I might add. Did you know there is a difference between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you? Surrrrprise! Studies have shown that when people are asked about themselves, they can become defensive, exaggerate their good qualities, and underestimate their socially undesirable qualities. (Crown & Marlowe, 1960) & (Reiss, 2008). Imagine that. But don’t despair. If you are guilty (as we all are) you have now simply qualified for the Human Being Club. Maybe this is what Benjamin Franklin meant when he said, “There are three things extremely hard: Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Seeking Steel, Diamonds, and K.O.S.
Okay, so even though knowing oneself is difficult, we must still pursue it with vigor. Yes, there is always a gap between your own internal view of yourself and others view of you, but good outcomes in life depend on that gap being small. If there is a huge discrepancy between how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself, you will experience very confusing outcomes in your life and your career. K.O.S. means having accuracy in self-evaluation and accuracy means the ability to decode well feedback you have sought.
Perception vs. Reality
In Chapter X, when Duncan Watts (Matlock, 2011) said the social sciences are “harder than rocket science,” what he meant is that in rocket science things are easy to measure, treat objectively, and understand in absolutes terms. The social sciences (or people sciences) are not like that.
The only “absolute” in the people sciences is that “perception is reality.” This means you interact with others and treat others based on your perception of them—which you then use in your interaction with them in the future as if it were reality. And they do the same with you. Perception has enormous impact on all of our daily interactions with each other. Perception can morph, is open to interpretation, and is influenced by many very human filters.
Knowing that perception is reality in decoding your feedback has both an upside and a downside. On the downside, knowing the input is heavily influenced by perception means it is very difficult to get objective data. The upside is that knowing all feedback is influenced by perception makes it much easier to not take the input so personally.
Don’t take it personally
If you remember that “perception is reality” is all human interaction, it is much easier to not take things personally when you are decoding feedback. Not taking everything personally helps you stay objective in the decoding process. And the more objective you can be, the more accurate you will be.
Seek Direct Information
Another problem besides perception that plagues accuracy in decoding feedback is when information is not overtly stated. Truthfully, it is a rare occasion when you get to have people’s perception of you communicated to you directly.
In my coaching and training over the years, I have always sought that experience for my clients. One of my favorite exercises facilitates direct communication to participants about other’s perceptions of them. I always loved the exercise and so did the participants. In lieu of such in-person interaction, another way to create the same outcome is by using a popular assessment called the 360. It is a more direct and formalized way to seek perception. And remember, the more direct the communication, the less decoding is needed. Sometimes we have to decode information that is murky at best, misleading at worst. Such is the case with feedback when you were not hired for a position.
Decoding when there are no answers
Most of the time when you miss out on a job, you never have any accurate feedback as to the “why”. A feedback form letter is mailed or emailed. Companies are “sue leery,” so they rarely tell you the truth about why you were not hired. Sometimes the decision truly has nothing to do with you. Sometimes the organization is simply going through the hiring motions, and knows full well who they intend to hire before they post the ad. Sometimes your skills really don’t match what they need. And sometime they give you legitimate explanations and sometimes those explanations are simply a cover-up for the real reason.
Cover-ups and Other Clandestine Activities
Decoding, of course, under these circumstances, becomes a challenge. Since you are unlikely to ever get direct, honest feedback from an organization, try attempting an indirect route. Call the company and thank them for considering your application. After you thank them, ask them if they could help you by giving you any feedback that would help you in future job interviews. Few people like to turn down a request to help someone and just this simple request will often yield a few informal clues.
Dan made this request consistently in his job search and was surprised by the honest answers he received once the interviewer realized he was genuinely trying to better himself for the next interview. One job Dan applied for was significantly beneath his abilities; yet, he didn’t get it. Dan was stunned and shocked, thinking to himself, “I can’t even get this job! You’ve got to be kidding!” He felt demoralized.
When he politely asked for an explanation, he was first met with protests and the usual run-around. He responded by saying that he genuinely wanted feedback, simply to improve. The manager sized him up, decided he was sincere, and then replied with just three words, “You won’t stay.”
The manager was right, of course. They both knew the job was beneath Dan’s abilities and they both knew the first chance Dan got to find something at his level, he would take it. Dan said the exercise of inquiring made him feel better, often reassuring him that it wasn’t him, thus, leaving his confidence intact.
Steve Williams, a first-rate salesman, learned his skills by calling each person he didn’t make a sale to and asking them what he did wrong to not earn their business. Once he was told that they didn’t like his boss. Another time, he was told, “You took my first offer and that must mean I wasn’t getting a very good deal.” He never took someone’s first offer again. It takes humility and a genuine willingness to learn to ask for such feedback.
Patterns vs. Events
Another way to gain perspective on career events is by analyzing whether situations or feedback is an Event or a Pattern. I was just speaking to someone who had been fired from her job and she was predictably, demoralized and confused. Analyzing such an event through a prism of “event vs. pattern” can offer perspective. When I suggested this filter to her, it proved helpful. I asked, “Have you ever been fired before or has any employer ever been dissatisfied with your work up until this time?” She answered emphatically, “No! In fact, I have usually been hired away from every job I have had.” (Her career had spanned well over fifteen years.)
I went on, “Has the person who fired you ever fired anyone else?” “Yes,” she replied, “heads roll out of that office all the time.” “So, it was an Event for you and a Pattern for her? I think the boss has a bigger problem than you do.” Knowing this intellectually does not always ease the emotional pain or sense of loss, but it can help with decoding accuracy. Patterns tell far more of a story than do events.
Three Options for Decoding Feedback
Perhaps it is years of being in business and teaching communication (thus understanding perception), that I never could understand why people feared feedback. If you think about feedback, there are only three possible categories for it.
- It’s right.
- It’s wrong.
- It has a grain of truth in it.
- If the feedback is correct, you should be grateful to receive it. It will probably save you mountains of grief in the future. Don’t wait for the fourth time to hear it, when the consequences have quadrupled.
- If it’s wrong, why spend another minute thinking about it?
- And if there is a grain of truth in it, pick out the grain, make use of it, and throw the rest away.
Of course, the difficult part is determining whether the feedback fits into Category 1, 2, or 3. Decoding feedback is an important skill in acquiring Knowledge of Self. Remember that all social interactions involve perception. Don’t personalize feedback. Seek direct communication and whenever possible, and look for patterns. All of these strategies will increase your accuracy rate dramatically. Once you have decoded, it’s now time for implementation.
Step Three: Implementing Feedback
There are many benefits to implementing feedback and there are also several cautionary tales. Knowing yourself allows you to sell yourself. Be cautious when you avoid implementing feedback because of being committed to a story or a certain self-image.
Benefits of Implementing Feedback
Implementing your K.O.S. into actual behaviors creates many benefits. One such benefit is excelling at Behavioral Interviewing. Behavioral Interviewing is a highly regarded and much used practice in which you must describe yourself through actual events and behaviors. “Prove it!” the interviewer is secretly demanding. It is then you casually mention an instance of when you actually demonstrated a certain trait—an implementation of your K.O.S. For instance, if you say you are innovative and resourceful, then you must tell about when your kids flooded the kitchen and you simply turned it into an aquarium. (You can leave off the part about grounding them for two years).
A benefit that comes from implementing your K.O.S. is that you can explain who you are. Having a strong knowledge of yourself (i.e. a strong identity), allows you to position yourself well in interviews, in business, and in the job market. You cannot “sell” what you don’t know. The more you understand yourself and your strengths, the more likely you are to be able to sell yourself. And selling yourself to a prospective employer or client is one of those beautiful benefits of implementing feedback.
Be Committed to Accuracy, Not Your Story
Implementing feedback also requires ruthless honesty. Commit to accuracy, not your story. I have seen people develop a “story”—often a life story about their careers, their lives, and their professional relationships and in the process, they resist the implementation of feedback. If the feedback coming in does not agree with their story or their self-image, they dismiss it. Such a practice will keep you embedded in your stuck place and keep you from implementing desperately needed change.
The Heads-Roll Boss mentioned above was notorious for her inaccessibility and resistance to feedback. If there was a problem at work, it was never her; thus the endless firings. In an article entitled, “For Managers, Ignorance is not Bliss,” published in the Bloomberg Business Week, the author states: “Not knowing one’s own faults and weaknesses—and being unaware that they even exist—is dangerous for top executives.” (Wartzman, 2007) That’s an understatement. How do you ever implement change with such non-existent self-awareness? Being committed to your story or your self-image over accuracy will always result in an unwillingness to hear (much less implement) even the most basic of feedback.
Implementation: Turn the Bad into Good
As we mentioned earlier, people fear feedback—especially if it’s labeled “constructive criticism” or worse, is intended as “destructive criticism.” Which of the two categories you choose to put feedback in relates to how you view it and if you implement it–even destructive criticism can be made constructive if you choose to use it that way. Even if feedback was given with ill intentions, you can still implement changes that will ultimately benefit you. What are vaccines but a small amount of the poison injected to build your immunity to it? Think of feedback that feels like harsh criticism that way.
When someone has experienced difficulty, loss, or frustration, it is easy to refuse to implement feedback. There is great peril in this. Even if the feedback is not 100% accurate, you can learn something from it. Even if you are learning how you are perceived (not necessarily how you are) that is valuable input. There may be something in there worth implementing.
Inputting is not Implementing
I told you earlier about the waiter who kept trying unsuccessfully to get management to offer a particular salad dressing. Maybe, according to management, there were good reasons to not offer that particular salad dressing—unavailable, costly, and against franchise rules. Who knows? It is important to not feel compelled to implement input you have run through the decoding process and feel another direction is warranted.
Making a distinction between inputting and implementing is important. Inputting does not mean accepting. It simply means gathering input.
Over the years, I have asked my Dad lots of business questions, seeking his input about decisions I had to make over the years. Since he has been in business, is a very wise man, and always wants my best, I highly value his input. But once, when I was asking him about a business decision he hesitated, half-smiled and then said, “I don’t know why I should give you my opinion. You don’t do what I suggest.”
No doubt this is filtered through Daddyhood, but I quickly explained that seeking input was just that—input. It was assumed on my part that seeking input was not an obligation to implement. I guess Daddy-O didn’t see it that way.
In my defense, I have always believed that whoever bears the consequences of a decision should be the final decider of that decision. And that is exactly how you should view career feedback. No one is going to live your career or your business but you and your family. I believe it is vital to seek input, but you alone must decide your course.
Why is Feedback so Important in Acquiring Knowledge of Self (K.O.S.)?
Why is feedback so important in acquiring K.O.S.? It is important because you cannot improve without it, you cannot change without it, and you cannot succeed without it.
- You cannot improve without it!
No matter where you are in your career, you must seek feedback in order to improve. Without understanding your starting skills, other’s perceptions of you, and your own internal processes, you cannot improve. Feedback makes clear your present Knowledge of Self and allows you to expand that in order to improve.
- You cannot change without it!
Awareness always expands Knowledge of Self. Feedback creates self-awareness and self-awareness facilitates change. Being unaware, all of us unconsciously engage in our default behavior. Only when you become aware of something, are you able to consciously make choices about it. This opens the possibility for change. And sometimes, just being aware, allows the issue to solve you–rather than requiring you to solve the issue.
- You cannot succeed without it.
If Fit is essential to success (as it is), you must have Knowledge of Self to find it. As you get feedback about yourself, you self-awareness grows. “As a person’s self-awareness grows, you improve [your] understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, needs and internal drivers. You become more aware of how your feelings affect you and how this might influence your motivation and desire, your behavior, your work, your impact on other people, and ultimately your success.” (Wales, 2003)
A 6 Pack is Not Enough!
True story. After one performance evaluation, a manager wrote this about his employee: “Got a full 6-pack, but lacks the plastic thing to hold it all together.” The “plastic thing that holds it all together” is Knowledge of Self or K.O.S.
Genghis Khan, according to one researcher (Estep, 2004) was able to conquer more than twice as much as any other person because he possessed, as one of his key competencies, self-awareness or K.O.S. Not that you are trying to conquer the world or anything, but it’s nice to know.
Good leaders need self-awareness or K.O.S. and so do career fit seekers. In fact, Knowledge of Self creates fit and fit creates Knowledge of Self. Love those positive cycles! According to Sigelman (Sigelman, 1999) “the goodness of fit between an individual and environment greatly influences such factors as self-awareness” or K.O.S.
Knowledge of Self (K.O.S.) is developed through welcoming feedback. Feedback comes from listening and observing. Feedback can be formal (performance evaluation, formal assessment, coaching), informal (miscellaneous comment), casual (friend’s input), intentional, or unintentional. The three steps to developing K.O.S. are to seek feedback, decode it, and then implement it. No matter how it comes, cling to it as the Holy Grail. It is the key that unlocks your career fit, and thus your career success.
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Drucker, P. F. (1999). Managing oneself. Harvard Business Review, 77(2), 64-75.
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Matlock, S. (2011, April 11). Too often common sense is nonsense: Scientist’s book tells why intuition fails us, Santa Fe New Mexican, pp. A-1, A-6.
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Wartzman, R. (2007, December 9). For Managers, Ignorance Isn’t Bliss, Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/dec2007/ca2007129_883361.htm