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The Boomer Bulletin - 2015
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The Pursuit of Constructive Criticism

Posted By Arianna Campbell, Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Utilizing constructive criticism for professional development is an important skill for leaders at all levels. Feedback from peers can provide high value insight on how to improve and the vulnerability shown by making the request builds trust. When solicited and applied effectively, constructive criticism can elevate the quality of your work, help manage and meet expectations, and make you a better leader. Following the five steps below will help you effectively solicit constructive criticism and use it to your advantage.  

Step 1: Change your thinking

Developing the right mindset is imperative for gathering constructive criticism. For many people, the thought of asking for feedback causes feelings of anxiety and stress. The most common causes of these feelings include a fear of “bad” comments, a negative past experience, professional insecurities or an ego that overshadows the desire for outside opinions. However, in reality, the dangers of NOT soliciting feedback should cause more angst.

Forbes.com highlighted the following findings from leadership development expert Joseph Folkman:

“In a recent study of 51,896 leaders we discovered that those who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.  On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in effectiveness. It appears that being open and willing to receive feedback from others is an essential skill for effective leaders.”

Constructive criticism should be viewed as a prerequisite for your professional growth. This change in your thinking will help motivate you to pursue feedback from your peers.   

Step 2: Make a Plan

Lack of preparation and poor timing can sabotage efforts to gather feedback. Executive Coach, Ed Batista, reminds us that, “We can’t just sit back and wait for feedback to be offered, particularly when we’re in a leadership role. If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.”

Set yourself up for success by making a plan to ask the right questions to the right people at the right time. The Five Star Client Service program uses a very simple and effective exercise called Ascertaining Satisfaction, which involves asking a peer two questions: "What do I do well?” and "What could I do better?” Asking several of your peers these simple questions will give you valuable insight on changes you could make to improve. Selecting the right people to answer these questions depends on the scope of the desired feedback, which could be as broad as your overall performance or as specific as your involvement in a project.

Once the scope is defined, identify people who can provide different perspectives. Resist the temptation to only ask people who will likely give all positive responses. Reach out to schedule an appointment and include an explanation of the purpose of the meeting as well as the two questions listed above. This communication will make their feedback better thought out and value added. This meeting should be face to face, but video can work as an alternative. Email and phone are not recommended. Determine a meeting location that is conducive to the conversation and that will make the other person feel comfortable. Consider meeting in a conference room or other common area, or make plans to go offsite for lunch or coffee. Taking the time to plan ahead will create a more positive experience for everyone involved.

Step 3: Gather the feedback

Now that planning ahead has set the stage for a valuable exchange, it is time to gather the feedback. Begin the meeting with a brief review of why you are asking for their insight and what you hope to achieve. Remind them of the two questions and then let them lead conversation. You should spend the majority of the time listening and taking notes to show that you engaged and find value in what they are sharing. Graciously accept compliments with a simple “thank you.” In the event that you disagree with their comments, make every effort not to get defensive or provide explanations. Remain neutral and try to understand the feedback from their perspective.  At the end of the meeting be sure to let the person know that you appreciate their time and willingness to help you improve.  

Step 4: Review and apply the feedback

After you have gathered the feedback, take time for a thoughtful review. Convert the comments into action items that fit into the following three categories: Keep Doing, Start Doing or Stop Doing. This method creates a well-rounded and actionable approach to making improvements. The natural tendency is to evaluate the “negative” comments first. However, starting with what you should keep doing allows you to build upon your strengths instead of making emotionally driven changes based on suggested areas of opportunity. Incorporate your Keep, Start, Stop plans into your professional development plan. Share your conclusions with an accountability partner or supervisor to help ensure your long term success.

Step 5: Continually improve

Give yourself a high-five for taking the initiative to become a better leader. It is not easy to solicit and apply constructive criticism, but the process is rewarding. Former president of Dartmouth College and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.” Elevate your level of leadership by making the pursuit of constructive criticism a habit.

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