Author: Emily Triplett Lentz
The further you get in your career, the harder it is to pinpoint—and then do something about—your personal and professional shortcomings. Why is that? How do you figure out your weak spots and then address them?
You’d think leaders especially would be skilled at identifying and removing obstacles. But as career coach Marshall Goldsmith explains in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, “We get positive reinforcement from our past successes, and, in a mental leap that’s easy to justify, we think that our past success is predictive of great things in our future.”
In other words, we think we got to where we are because of the way we are and what we’ve done—not in spite of it. In many cases, that’s wrongheaded. Our shortcomings do hold us back, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Shortcomings You Can’t See
Unless you’ve reached enlightenment, chances are you have at least a few unidentified, unaddressed shortcomings (often referred to as “blind spots,” though I prefer the term “derailers” because it’s a less ableist way to connote shortcomings large enough to cause your career to slide off track).
The further we advance in our careers, the less these derailers have to do with “hard skills” and the more likely they’re personal and behavioral in nature. Perhaps you’re unaware of how consistently negative you are in meetings. Maybe you make excuses rather than accept responsibility. Do you value being right over being effective? Claim credit you don’t deserve? Fail to listen? Behave as if the rules don’t apply to you?
If you think, “Sure, but that’s just who I am”—that’s a derailer too.
Over time, Goldsmith says, it’s easy “to make a virtue of our flaws—simply because the flaws constitute what we think of as ‘me.’ This misguided loyalty to our true natures—this excessive need to be me—is one of the toughest obstacles to making positive long-term change in our behavior.”
What tricky little justification machines our brains are! We’re so adept at downplaying the significance of how others perceive us, not to mention how skilled we are at identifying others’ shortcomings over our own. The good news: you can solicit honest feedback and act on it in ways that help you overcome these potential career derailers.
Why It’s Hard to Solicit Feedback
Even if you know you could use some feedback, it’s often still difficult to actually ask for guidance or advice. Why is that?
1. We Don’t Want to Know
Fact is, our derailers are holding us back whether we acknowledge them or not. Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, says some of the most common refrains she hears from CEOs are “I don’t know if I want to know everything” or “I feel like I’m opening Pandora’s Box.” She tells them yes, they might hear feedback they don’t necessarily want to—but the reality is that “those things exist whether or not you choose to address them or learn more about them.”
2. We Don’t Want to Look Incompetent
Especially among leaders, there’s a concern that asking for feedback makes it look like you don’t know what you’re doing. “If you’re the person people look to for answers, but you don’t have the answers, then your team may not think of you as a strong leader,” says Help Scout CEO Nick Francis. “As a leader you’re always making big bets, or making assumptions and going out on a limb with regard to a product or market or whatever. Typically that doesn’t lend itself to asking for advice.”
3. No One Wants to Be the Messenger
I once begged my best friend to tell me what my weaknesses were, the ones I couldn’t see for myself. She didn’t want to say. “How can I change for the better if I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?” I pressed. “Some conversations are better off not taking place,” she told me. People don’t want to be the bearer of negative feedback because they fear negative consequences.
This is especially true when the feedback-seeker holds more power; who wants to inform her supervisor that he has a nasty temper? We anticipate that the recipient of our feedback will assume we are confused or wrong, and that they will discredit our message. We expect them to take it personally and get defensive. It doesn’t take a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis to decide it’s easier to put up with the behavior than to speak up.