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Ask Lawrence: What is the value of taking on board personal criticism?

12 Apr 14:00 By Lawrence Akers

Lawrence Akers Value of Personal Criticism

A few years ago, I was out having a catch up with my GM. Every quarter, she would take senior management aside and offer up something of an informal performance review over a coffee.  

“Can I be really direct with you about something?”, she asked me.

“…sure”, I replied, obviously a little concerned about where this was going.

“Are you aware that you’re a terrible listener?”, she said. “You don’t do active listening. I’d really encourage you to become a little more present when you’re talking with people.”

It proved to be something of a milestone moment for me. In the moment, the news was confronting and, realistically, no one likes to be told that they have flaws. Having said that, I went away to the snow with friends that weekend and, in a moment of self-reflection, noticed that she was absolutely right. I spent much of one evening standing back, watching my partner trying to get a word in while all my friends continued to talk, unaware that they were talking over my partner and clearly feeling that what they had to say was more important. I also noticed that only one other of my friends in the room that night had mastered active listening and being present to the moment, as I could see it in the way he communicated with everyone else. The dawning realisation that I had been doing this as well changed me in a moment.

Had my GM not have the courage to offer up that feedback, I may not have ever changed.

It also took a certain amount of tact and congruence from my GM to offer it up in a way that ensured it did not feel like a personal attack and that it was in my best interest.

"What has this all got to do with recruitment?", I hear you ask. Good question. As I have mentioned before in my article about facing and dealing with rejection, part of our job is to frequently tell people why they're NOT suitable for a particular role. This is part of the role that is uncomfortable for all involved however it takes a certain amount of experience, empathy, and genuine caring for us to give people real feedback instead of just saying what we think you might want to hear to move you on. It's the same when a temporary job doesn't go to plan and the client isn't happy with the outcome. When the feedback is being offered, it isn't about someone being 'good or bad' at their work; there are several reasons why the outcome was what it ended up being. It is about trying to find out what did happen though and offering up some insights for consideration to improve performance and ensure that things are in place so that it doesn't repeat again.

It is easy to understand why people don’t enjoy having feedback like this offered to them. If they’re not emotionally secure, it could raise that whole ‘I’m not good enough’ message that so many of us seem to tell ourselves and believe. That can result in people becoming disengaged or defensive or even angry; how dare you offer me critique - you’re not perfect!  

And you know what, you’re right. No one is without flaws. And this is part of the key in being able to take on board and benefit from personal criticism. No one is perfect so we should all stop pretending we are and, instead, just continue to be the best that we can be knowing that, in moments where we're not our best, we have something that we can learn from it.

While there will be some people who freely offer critiques to bring other people down, many will offer it professionally with the intention of allowing you the opportunity to develop new skills and to close the gap in on ‘flaws’ that might be preventing you from gaining new opportunities.

When receiving personal critiques, ask yourself if there is any element of truth to what you’re being told? Once you’ve allowed that moment of defensive to subside, honestly sit with the feedback and explore how you might be able to take the learnings from the critique and improve on what you do. Appreciate that it often takes courage and genuine caring from people to offer that feedback in the first place and they’re not doing it to be nasty but because they recognise how much potential there is in you. The choice is all yours as to how you wish to respond; imagine that you had the courage to share with someone your observation, how would you want them to react?

So, what ever happened to my GM that took the courage to offer me that accurate insight? Well, she is now my MD. It is honest feedback like that which builds strong, real, genuine, transparent and authentic relationships and ones that people don’t forget in a hurry. Being real with people and offering feedback in a way that shows you honestly care goes beyond the job description. So regardless of if you’re getting it from a colleague, a mentor, a best friend or even a recruiter, thank them for caring enough to let you know.