Take On Feedback

How To Own Your Strengths


Last week I was working with a group of leaders in a session where they were practicing giving real-time feedback to each other. And not just any feedback: they were focused on giving feedback on the perceived strengths of the other person.

In debriefing the activity, I was surprised how many people in the group, both men and women, found it uncomfortable to receive that type of feedback. “I find it much easier to hear the things that I could improve” was a common comment. It appeared that these people didn’t want to know how good they were. Someone even said, “I’m afraid my head will get too big if I take all of that good stuff on board”.

I challenged them to think differently. After all, there’s a plethora of research out there that shows the most effective leaders own, and play to, their strengths. I created a virtual spectrum on the floor in the middle of the group. I called one end ‘Arrogance’ and the other ‘Ignorance’.

I said that I reckon too many people are so afraid of being seen to be up at the ‘Arrogance’ end that they rush to the other end instead, and don’t want to know about the gifts they possess. And I reckon that’s a wasted opportunity.

Then I went and stood in the middle. I called that place ‘Curious Confidence’. That place where you own your good stuff, and at the same time you’re always curious about how you can be improving. It’s a healthy self-esteem blended with a clear understanding that you can always improve.

Arrogance Ignorance Curious Confidence2 (1)

We discussed how to be more in the middle, more of the time. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Say thank you. When someone gives you a compliment, you don’t need to defend against it and try to be in Ignorance. Just respond with a simple “thank you”. Try it, and notice the shift in your inner state towards a Curious Confidence.
  2. Ask for specifics. Whenever someone gives me a compliment about the work I’ve been doing with them, I’ll try to understand more about what led them to say it. I’ll often ask “what was it about what I did that you liked?” or “what difference do you think that made?”. The more I understand the specifics, the more I have to work with and perhaps use in the future.
  3. Write it down. We’re more likely to remember things when we write them down. And it helps us process them further. So rather than let a compliment drift off into the ether, keep a journal that you can refer back to from time to time. You’ll notice patterns emerge from the tapestry of compliments you receive over time.

One thing not to do. Don’t feel the need to immediately respond with a compliment. Unless it’s genuine and relevant, it’ll land flat. Act like it’s your birthday. It’s your time in the light. Accept the gift you’re being given graciously. Soon enough, it’ll be their ‘birthday’ and you can reciprocate.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve learned to be more in a state of ‘Curious Confidence’, I’m more grounded. I get less fazed by new and challenging situations because I’ve built a base of self-confidence that I can draw on. I’m burning less energy and time on self-doubt and rumination. And life is better for it. Do I have the ‘Arrogance Monster’ whispering in my ear from time to time? You bet. And that’s a good thing. But I’ve learned to stay in the healthy middle and avoid the run towards Ignorance.

So, next time you are given a compliment, how will you respond?


Picture: From ‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan

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Ask Four Questions


Do you want feedback about you when you’re at your best? Are you wondering how you can make a difference to others in the most authentic way? Then read on.

Getting honest feedback helps you to grow your self-awareness, and better understand what you are all about.

Ask the following four questions to you get a sense of what people see as the best, most authentic ‘you’. Choose people who know you well, and you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Try to get feedback from at least five people.

  1. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of me?
  2. When have you seen me at my best?
  3. What do you think are my greatest strengths?
  4. What do you think are my greatest accomplishments?

I ask these questions to trusted colleagues, clients and friends every couple of years. I find the answers I get incredibly useful to calibrate my own self-perception and help me to make the most of my strengths.

You’ll notice that there are no questions about weaknesses or things you should do to improve. That’s not the point of this exercise. This is about identifying the best, most authentic you.

It’s useful to ask people to reply in an email, and then you can cut-and-paste the replies into a table. This may help you easily identify the patterns and themes across the answers.

You can use this template to help you capture and make sense of the answers you get.

Go well!


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Fruitcakes Are Good For You

A couple of weeks ago, I got some feedback I didn’t want to hear. I’ve been working with a group of smart, ambitious, mid-career professionals over the past couple of months, teaching them strategies to define and maximise the next stage of their careers. I love this work, and I love working with those types of people. However, one of the challenges, for me at least, is that sometimes they can be pretty blunt.

Mid-way through our programme, participants were asked to complete a survey on how the process had been going. To my great delight, the vast majority of respondents were very happy and getting a lot of value. Except for one. An outlier who thought I was completely off the mark, teaching stuff way below their level, and that I needed to step it way up. Shudder. It was the first time I’d received feedback like that after working with many similar groups over the past five years. (more…)

How To See

This morning, driving through Wellington’s hilly terrain, I was playing ‘I-spy’ in the car with my eight-year-old son. He was trying hard to guess my word starting with ‘H’. After a few attempts (“Head”, “hands”, “horrible monsters…”) I decided to give him a clue: “They’re outside, and we are surrounded by them”. After a few more attempts, including another try with “horrible monsters”, he exasperated “Dad, I can’t see anything out there that starts with “H”!!!

Of course, the answer was “hills”, and they were in plain sight everywhere. You can imagine his face when I told him! That priceless look that said “how could I have missed something so obvious?”

We had a good laugh, and then a thought struck me: how often do we all miss the retrospectively obvious things right in front of us? Not so much things like lost car keys, but the more subtle things. Like the mood of the person we’re addressing. Or the patterns at play in our organisation’s culture, and how those patterns impact productivity and innovation over time. Those things, that if our current frame of reference isn’t attuned to them, we just won’t notice them, even though they’re there to see. (more…)

What’s Your Circuit Breaker?

Busy? Sure! Getting stuff done? You bet. Learning? Hmmm…

For most of us, the days can fly by, largely shaped by to-do lists, back-to-back tasks, and meetings. Business activities. Busyness activities. I assume the idea behind all of this is that if we get through all of the activities, we’ve done a good day’s work.

But pick a manager or professional at random, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find that they’re over-busy. They’re yearning for space to breathe, to think, to stand back and make sense of stuff. Time to read the signs, make some decisions, adjust course.

In short, they need a circuit breaker. And preferably not of the crisis kind. Too many people only change after they ‘hit the wall’ – e.g. burnout, heart attack, marriage breakup. While valuable lessons can be learned from a good crisis, it usually comes at a cost, and the road to recovery is usually a long one.

How do you build simple circuit breakers into your life to stay on track and keep learning? Here’s an example of a circuit breaker in action:

Recently, a client and I worked together over a few months to help her to step up into a bigger, more challenging role. The new job required her to drive results through her managers and their teams, and let go of doing a lot of the detailed work herself.

Being an action-oriented, ‘busy’ sort of person, her challenge was to learn how to not do all the work herself. One of her main development areas was to learn to regularly step back, reflect and make sense of what was going on, rather than plough on through her to-do list. She needed a circuit breaker.

So we set up an experiment. Every day for three weeks, at 5:00pm, I sent her a text. The text was different each day: an open-ended question designed to get her to stop, step back, and review how she was tracking. She took the time to write a detailed reply, which forced her to slow down and process her thinking.

At the end of the coaching programme, she reported that the ‘text experiment’ was the single biggest factor in helping her to let go of old mindsets and behaviours, and be the leader she needed to become.

Here’s some of the conversation:

Circuit Breaker Txts

Circuit breakers can come in multiple forms, and they’re readily accessible if you’re willing to build them into your life. They can be something as simple as a daily text, or something as chunky as a six month sabbatical. The main thing for a circuit breaker to be effective is that it:

  1. disrupts your normal routine; and
  2. provides a way for you to stop, step back, and make sense of what’s happening.

In a recent leadership development workshop I was running, we brainstormed the sorts of circuit breakers that worked for the participants. Here are a few examples:

  • Take a walk around the block
  • Set a daily reminder on Outlook
  • Meet for breakfast monthly with a group of colleagues with diverse background
  • Get a coach / mentor to ask you questions that make you think
  • Take a month off every year and go somewhere new

Personally, I’ve found that combining a daily circuit breaker that takes very little time (e.g. going for a walk around the block) with a more structured but less frequent one (a coach) gives me the thinking space I need.

And I’m just about to trigger one of the bigger circuit breakers I’ve had for a while – I’m heading off for three months for an adventure with my family to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. No emails or phones, just the majesty of nature and a completely different way of living for a while.

Think about what circuit breakers you have available to you. How well are you using them? How can you deliberately build them into your life to ensure you get the thinking space you need?


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