I had the pleasure of hearing Col. Mark Slocum, Commander of the 4th Fighter Wing, speak at a local Leading Wayne event here in Goldsboro, NC this past week. He advocated that every leader should have a critical thinker; someone to poke holes in your ideas. Basically, the opposite of a “yes” man. Every great leader needs someone to challenge their ideas to make sure the ideas are sound. I completely agree. The problem is that it is not the easiest thing to go out and look for criticism. It’s uncomfortable. It’s being vulnerable. It’s being humble.
I have to say I face this, to some degree, every week when I send out my blog draft to “Cathy’s Brain Trust” to several old friends from college and beyond. I have to say that the first few drafts (some two and half years ago), received glowing reviews along with a slew of grammatical corrections. So, although I felt vulnerable when I hit the send button, I received mostly thumbs up and was forced to acknowledge the holes in my grammar. There have been many times since those first few posts where there was some not so favorable feedback. Some posts never got published. It was humbling and, at times embarrassing (there is a big difference between roster and rooster). I survived. I have endured. I have learned. And I’m a better writer. And, as with any exercise like this, we have all learned from each other. The group has even admitted to me their discomfort sometimes when contributing but the intent has always been to make things better!
So where do you go looking for the Critic? Here are some ideas:
1. Perspective. Look for someone with a different perspective. In a recent Mastermind (a group of like-minded folks working for a similar goal) conference call, one of the group members had raised that idea that if you are creating a coaching website, it really doesn’t make sense to have other coaches give you feedback about the site. They will come from a coaching perspective and not a client perspective. So go find someone with the perspective of a potential end user. If you are developing a new garden for a senior center, go talk to the seniors that will be using the garden. If you are making a new kid friendly tortilla, go talk to some kids. If you are looking for feedback on the employee picnic, survey the employees and their families. Find a different perspective from those who are invested in the outcome.
2. No dog in the fight. Make sure you are getting feedback from someone with nothing to gain or someone without a dog in the fight. I can remember having a menu tasting for a restaurant I opened some twenty years ago, and we had the staff taste the menu. Probably not the most unbiased crowd to poll. Those folks wanted to get the restaurant open and get paid, they would probably have said that everything tasted great. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we eliminated any menu items from that tasting. Make sure your Critic doesn’t have anything to gain from sitting back and nodding their head. Make sure they don’t have a dog in the fight.
3. Feed Forward. If there is an opportunity, look for feed forward. Feed forward is when you ask for how you could do it differently or more effectively the next time. This is not a deep brutal post mortem on everything that went wrong (although this would be necessary for things like equipment malfunction) but rather a look at what is possible in the future. As Marshall Goldsmith recommends, pick one behavior you want to change like, “I want to be a better listener”. Try it on for size with a few folks that are your coworkers, your boss and your direct reports. Let them know you want to be a better listener and ask them what that would look like to them. Be careful NOT to look back for examples where you were not a good listener. This is all about moving forward (not backwards). Ask them for two suggestions and shut up. Make notes. Thank them. You can ask your participant if they would like some feed forward on something they would like to change. Ask for feed forward.
4. Anonymity. There is also value in having the critique come from an anonymous source. Wiley has an Everything DiSC 363 Assessment where you can have four different groups of people give feedback and all the feedback is anonymous except for the manager. So all the direct reports are in one group, all the coworkers are in another. There’s also the option of including the board of directors, customers and/or a manager(s). They are all asked about the leader’s style in various areas (i.e. collaboration, approachability, directness, etc.) and given the option for various preset comments. I think this is really effective because if 20 out of 25 raters said that, “Joe could be a lot more approachable”; it’s a powerful statement rather than 20 different comments trying to say the same thing. The point is that if there is anonymity, you will receive more honest feedback. This is especially true if you are in a leadership position and your direct reports may feel there will be repercussions if they say anything unflattering. There may be a reason to have your Critic have anonymity.
5. Trusted. Then, of course, there is the trusted group that you know will give it to you straight. There is no way to say how you cultivate this group except that you’ll know when you know. It’s like “Cathy’s Brain Trust”, the group has morphed a bit overtime. A member would never give feedback or I didn’t find value in it. Trust is a two way street. If I received some constructive feedback and blew up in anger or ignored the feedback, I am letting down my side of the bargain. So if you ask for criticism be prepared to receive it graciously and give up on the illusion that you need to be perfect. It’s not going to happen. We all have flaws and, mine in particular, is a grasp of American English grammatical rules. It doesn’t mean I can’t write, it just means I need a trusted English major as a part of my brain trust.
Let me just say that it’s easier to be surrounded by “yes” men. It’s more comfortable to be untested and to ride the status quo. I get it. I still get slightly squeamish when I send these posts for feedback. I love this mantra on criticism from Christine Kane: SWSWSWSW “Some will, some won’t. So what? Someone’s waiting.” There is someone out there waiting for this post on this topic. Whew. What a relief.