Throughout our professional careers, we are given plenty of casual advice by well-meaning colleagues, friends, and those we currently call our boss; “do this, don’t do that, consider this, I suggest that”. In most cases, the stakes involved in heeding or not heeding this type of advice are relatively small. Not a great deal will change one way or another and the advice givers are unlikely to invest much emotional energy in our response.
Then there are those occasions — relatively fewer in number — when a “critical conversation” takes place and we receive feedback and an important, potentially career-changing dose of advice with significant implications and considerable weight attached. It can come from a boss, mentor, colleague, or friend. Perhaps the advice involves a significant career move you should or should not take. Perhaps you are about to authorize some important action with wide-ranging potential consequences and others doubt its wisdom. Often this sort of important advice will involve something about your performance or operating style that someone believes is about to damage your career in some way.
Whatever the nature of what I call critical feedback and advice, choosing to heed or not heed it is often a complicated psychological and emotional challenge, especially if heeding it involves a tacit acknowledgement of some personal imperfection or the need for personal change. Being informed, for example, by your physician that your unhealthy life style and poor physical condition needs immediate alteration or else, is easily interpreted as an insult to your intelligence and self-control — “how could you let yourself go like this” — and a behavior modification challenge beyond your capability. Far to many of us, for a variety of reasons, turn a deaf ear to this sort of advice to our own detriment.
So, how does one remain open to recognizing, hearing, rationally considering, and acting upon important advice at critical points in our professional lives that can make a big difference in shaping the course we take in the years ahead? My own answer involves exercising the self-discipline required to successfully:
- LISTEN, NOT ARGUE, with what you hear. It is so human to want to counter advice that is not what we want to hear or which suggests we are flawed in some way. Turning our immediate attention to alternative ways of looking at the situation, can deny us the benefit of fully recognizing the importance of accurately hearing and considering everything the advice giver has to say. In most cases involving critical advice, the advice giver has carefully thought out precisely what he or she wants you to consider, so listen carefully to everything before you respond.
- BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. I can think of no single time in my career, when I received this sort of Dutch uncle or aunt intervention, that the insight into me, my performance, and the advice rendered was not spot on. While the feedback and accompanying advice was not always something I instantly welcomed, or wished to acknowledge, I had to admit its veracity and the importance of heeding the message involved. There is no such thing as a good manager who can not look at themselves honestly at important times in their career. The job is simply too hard, and we are simply incumbered by too many weaknesses, to believe that we will always get it right.
- TAKE THE LONG VIEW. While the feedback and advice I am discussing here is often difficult to absorb and act upon in the short run, in most instances the long-term benefits are the true payoff. Focusing on the eventual goal and reminding yourself regularly of its value to your professional and personal growth, helps sustain commitment during the difficult task of any adaptive change involved.
- REMEMBER THAT IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO BE ADAPTABLE, NOT STUBBORN. As simple as this last point sounds, recall that your own life experience offers plenty of examples of individuals who stubbornly refuse to adapt or change no matter the considerable reasons that they should. If you believe, as I do, that self-interest is a powerful motivator, this is one instance where a little selfishness is OK. As a manager, adaptive change that makes you better at what you do, both advances your own career and benefits all those who daily depend upon the application of your skills on their behalf.
Heeding critical feedback and advice is yet another thing that the best managers know and do.