Change before understanding

A lot of leadership literature emphasizes the importance of in-depth personal feedback – the kind that focuses on you as a person vs. the kind that focuses on work you did. On first glance, it makes sense. It helps to know when you are rubbing people the wrong way from time to time and to course-correct.

There is, however, a problem. Most feedback sucks. And that’s not because of feedback givers. It’s just really hard to give good feedback. Our feedback on someone else’s personality and behavior is colored heavily by our biases, our insecurities and our views of the world. And, it tends to often neglect a real understanding of the other person while assuming there is such a thing as a well-rounded person.

You’ve seen this happen – either in your interpersonal interactions or in your companies. Consultants often make this mistake – they give advice without really understanding the client’s context. And new CEO’s attempt cultural transformations too soon.

The underlying problem is exactly the same – I call it ‘change without understanding.’ This idea has some interesting implications on how we approach personal growth.

First, a growth mindset is great. But, I’d argue it needs to be applied with an understanding of context. Carol Dweck’s research on fixed mindset and growth mindset has made waves over the past few years. Carol’s research demonstrated that we can change more about ourselves than society would like us to believe. And that’s true. If we’re open enough for instance, we can learn anything we want. And, as someone who writes about learning and getting better every day, it would be hypocritical not to agree. I agree with Carol but, and yes, there is a but, I’d like to play devil’s advocate.

While we are definitely influenced by our environment, there is no denying that we also have an intrinsic nature. Most parents who have two or more kids are generally quick to admit that nature is a huge part of what makes a person. Kids have natural instincts and they gravitate towards those instincts. As we grow up, we often lose touch with these instincts and our authentic selves. And, while it is true that we can learn anything we want, some things come a lot easier to us than others. Deliberate practice researchers make a compelling argument about the link between childhood practice and talent. They say talent is ‘overrated’. That is also true. We often put undue weight onto natural talent but it would be foolish to say it doesn’t exist. Our authentic self is primed to be extraordinary at something. Some know it when they’re young (“I always knew I’d be a …”) while, for others, it is a journey that involves many years of training before they stumble onto that realization. Luckily, both the journey of finding what we’re extraordinary at and the journey of using that to make the world better are both incredibly rewarding.

So, my first assertion would be that our focus shouldn’t be on learning and understanding all those things we aren’t good at. There are millions of things we can better at. The question worth asking is – what can I be extraordinary at?

Second, the ‘what can I be extraordinary at?’ question is different from the more existential ‘what am I meant to do?/what is my passion?’ because it has a focus on skills.

Over time, we begin to understand the sort of activities we gravitate towards. Some of us are naturally skilled at detail oriented tasks while others are not. Some of us have a high appetite for risk while others don’t. The key here is to go back to the authentic self idea; to understand what we might be outstanding at, we need to really understand ourselves. And, understanding ourselves requires us to test our own approach and thinking and follow these experiments up with time for reflection.

Can others help us understand ourselves? Absolutely. But, they require context, insight, and an ability to get over themselves (a great parenting books describes this as ‘parenting from wholeness, not from wounds). This doesn’t mean people never have useful insights. All feedback has some percentage of useful content. It’s just not that efficient to keep decoding feedback because we also tend to over weight the negative and underweight the positive.

Third, change occurs when there is a want for change. And, I’d argue that we have an internal compass that knows what we need to do. We just need to drown out the noise and listen to ourselves. I know this sounds philosophical. But, think about times when you’ve had difficulty choosing between two choices – you’ve likely figured it out for yourself anyway (and then asked for opinions to confirm your point of view!).

That, I think, is what great feedback is about. When done right, it just points the receiver in the direction they want to go. That’s why it is so hard to get right. I mess this up all the time. Great feedback isn’t about answers – it is about questions.

I had a wise friend who didn’t believe in giving feedback. Instead, he’d spend a lot of time describing observations he’d made and then working hard to understand what drove me to do what I did. In doing so, he worked to understand what drove me and what my assumptions were in the situation. And, when he felt he understood the situation, he’d go on to have a conversation with me about it and ask more questions to make me think about what I’d consider my best response in such a situation (i.e. what my best/future self would like to do). This was a tiring process. But, what he did was incredibly effective – he dug deep into various situations to understand me and understand what I was having difficulty with. Then, he’d ask me where I think I should go and give me the confidence to walk through the process.

I never understood it then. I see it now. It is ridiculously easy to give someone feedback – if they’re quiet, ask them to speak more, if they’re energetic, ask them to calm down, etc..

So, here’s to feedback v2.0 – understanding the person before suggesting any change. And, you know what I’ve found on the rare occasions I’ve managed to do that.. sometimes, just the act of seeking to understand brings us to the realization that the other person doesn’t really need feedback.  We don’t need people attempting to be perfect and well-rounded. It’s the edges that make life interesting..


An additional note – I’m not sure I’ve done justice to this idea. After a lot of thinking, I thought I’d get to writing it anyway. I’m hoping it comes through!