January 25th is Burns Night in Scotland. Robert Burns was a Scottish poet, and you will know him as the author of Auld Lang Syne, but I think of him as the champion of self-awareness because of these lines, from the poem To a louse:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion
In other words, we would be so much better off if we could see ourselves as others see us—it would save us from so many blunders and misguided ideas. I imagine the editors of the Harvard Business Review are keen Burns fans, and that’s why they just published a digitalarticle on self awareness. I’m attaching the summary from a recent Marshall Memo, as another plug for this incredibly useful service. Also, this HBR article was the genesis of a column in the Smarter Living section of the New York Times.
The techniques for achieving greater self-awareness are many and varied, but one of the simplest is just to ask other people for feedback. However, as the saying goes, just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are many factors that make the whole subject tricky or difficult…
First, coaches and leaders have come to think of themselves as feedback givers, rather than feedback receivers. One of my favorite things to do, given the opportunity, is to lead groups in changing their thinking about feedback—about its role and importance in shifting our mental models—and getting better about giving and receiving it. Attached is an excerpt from What did you say, written, with his spouse and a colleague, by Charlie Seashore, who was one of my coaching mentors, and from whom I learned my favorite ever coaching question, “What would you do if you were a grown-up?” (Don’t worry, I’ve never worked up the nerve to use it.) As the HBR article on self-awareness points out, the more powerful the leader, the more immune from feedback, and the more susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect (subject of CL #12). A good coach will challenge you relentlessly to seek feedback, to take it seriously, and to see your role as someone who responds to feedback rather than someone who is automatically entitled to always be the feedback-dispenser.
Second, we don’t want to hear it. More accurately, we want the affirmation not the disconfirmation. The Jan/Feb issue of HBR has a fascinating article about people’s response to negative feedback. It’s an interview with a researcher who studied what happened when people were given critical feedback on a short story; the researcher explains that the typical response is to find someone else to work with. I have heard a lot of leaders be dismissive of those who don’t take feedback well, and I have little reason to believe that they themselves handle it any better. But the fact that we don’t like negative feedback doesn’t appear to give us much empathy for others who don’t like it either. There is a lot to dig into in this story, and I will come back to it.
Which leads to, third, making it difficult for people to give feedback, because we communicate—through awkward jokes, facial expressions and body language, and just plain declarative statements—that we really don’t want to know the negative, even though, intellectually, we understand that that’s what is most helpful. You should watch, if you haven’t already, Sheila Heen’s talk about how to get better at receiving feedback. And, if you can, read Stone & Heen, Thanks for the feedback, and Seashore et al, What did you say?
One final tip. This is a tough time of year, there’s a lot going on, and people are stressed. One of the things that makes feedback easier to take is when we know that the person who’s giving it values us and our work. Not coincidentally, feeling valued, and feeling that the people we work with know what we value, also helps us get through the hard times. So this is a really good time to pay serious attention to what matters to your colleagues, and let them know that you’ve been paying attention—not through the nebulous “I know we’re all here for the kids”, but via insightful statements about their practice that demonstrates noticing on your part. It will make a difference. Try it and let me know how it goes.
As always, I wish you all the best, and hope you will let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Isobel
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106