“Success has to do with deliberate practice. Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there's feedback” M. Gladwell
In my previous article I reflected on the importance of failure in the development of our careers and discussed how it can – and should – be turned into a motivating factor for growth and progression. One of the key factors that can help us turn failure into a learning opportunity is feedback. Recently, I was involved in a series of academic peer review activities that reminded me the value of hearing someone else’s opinion and suggestions on our work. Academia is without a doubt one of the environments where individuals learn very early in their careers how to receive and provide feedback as a regular practice to improve their performance and an integral part of their professional growth.
Feedback in the business context
In the business world, the relationship with feedback has traditionally been very different. Professionals usually expect feedback from managers or someone more experienced (not necessarily from their peers) on a regular basis - the norm being annual or quarterly reviews – and in a fairly formal way. However, we have all witnessed the ebbs and flows of performance appraisals and we constantly discuss what is most appropriate when it comes to the nature, frequency and aim of sharing feedback effectively. Even though the approach to providing feedback has been changing over the last few years, it is still seen by many people as a difficult conversation that can make both parties involved uncomfortable. In many cases, feedback is also mainly associated with the idea of speaking about something that went wrong or that we did not particularly like, and we often wait until a problem emerges before sharing it.
It’s not all about formal feedback!
The truth is that we are not used to the notion that feedback is actually around us all the time and in most cases, we receive it, even though we haven’t asked for it. By observing und listening to our colleagues or managers, we can find it in their attitudes and behaviours or in the way they speak or write to us. Even though this type of feedback is informal and often unspoken, it does not mean that it is less valuable and we should learn to accept it, together with its more structured counterpart, as a learning opportunity to understand the perception that others have of us and our work. When provided efficiently, it is a source of constructive criticism - as opposed to judgement or evaluation – that can be used by the receiver to reflect on areas of improvement, ways to reach a goal or, if positive, reinforce a virtuous behaviour. It is also a great opportunity to think about one’s interactions with others and raise self-awareness on key strengths and weaknesses in collaborative situations.
Finding your trusted critics
As a young professional, it is never too early to understand the importance of asking for feedback as a way to gain insights on performance and how to progress, especially when it comes to soft skills that are generally not easy to evaluate, if not through the perspectives of others. It is particularly important to welcome feedback, both formal and informal, from different peers and more experienced colleagues, provided it is respectfully given and is aimed at growth and learning. However, it is inevitable to come across feedback that does not contribute to our improvement and does not provide an opportunity for growth and reflection. This toxic feedback may ultimately result in making people defensive, disengaged and losing their confidence. As a result, it is useful to identify a couple of people that you trust and who can provide their objective, unbiased – as much as possible - opinion on your work. The best feedback you can receive is given by someone who genuinely wants to support your development and knows how to share it in an appropriate way to encourage your growth.
Knowing how to give feedback is as important as receiving it
We often focus mostly on learning how to invite and receive feedback but it is equally essential to know how to provide it as well. This comes with its own degree of responsibility and may prove to be more difficult than expected, but it a fundamental leadership skill that will be extremely important throughout your career. By getting into the habit of providing feedback, we also reflect on our own expectations as well as our own strengths and weaknesses and we will truly appreciate the value of it being a two-way, non-judgemental exchange. In addition, it is an opportunity to develop a different perspective to look at the feedback that we are given by putting ourselves in the shoes of the person giving feedback.
Feedback in a multi-generational work environment
Young professionals entering the world of work now have a unique opportunity to find themselves exposed to at least two or three other generations of professionals who can share a wealth of different opinions and invaluable wisdom. One of the things that the recent pandemic has taught us is that the only way to face complex challenges is to combine the extensive knowledge of more experienced generations with the spirit of innovation of the new ones. Most of the issues that we are currently facing require new solutions that are often very different from the ones that we have been considering “best practice” until now. This calls for mutual learning and a dialogue between different perspectives that goes beyond generational differences and leverages them as an opportunity to do better rather than a source of conflict and disagreement.
See your career potential from someone’s point of view
I was recently reminded of the story of the man who, seeing huge animals like elephants tied up only with small ropes, wonders how it is possible that they do not try to break free, considering how easy it would be for them. The answer obviously does not lie in the strength of the bond but in the fact that since they are little, these animals are made to believe that they would not be able to break free. In the context of our personal and professional growth, this represents the role of our self-limiting beliefs and the lack of self-awareness on our abilities in making us doubt our potential for growth. When effectively given, feedback can have a significant impact on realising not only what we can do better but also what we can potentially achieve. It is very common to doubt ourselves, especially in the beginning of our career or when taking on a new challenge, and, as a result, we often underestimate what we can actually accomplish until we see it though someone else’s eyes.
Reflect. Plan. Act.
Receiving feedback should only be the first step in the learning process. The real value of feedback comes from what you do with it and your willingness to question the way in which you currently do or see things. Valuable feedback should trigger self-reflection and the identification of specific actions to take to improve your performance and progress in your career successfully.
I would urge all young professionals to make feedback - whether formal or informal – a regular aspects of their personal development. And I’d suggest to keep these three key steps in mind:
Should I become a generalist or a specialist? This is a very common question, especially when entering the world of work. In my next article, I will focus on these two concepts and will discuss their respective advantages and disadvantages, particularly from the perspective of young professionals starting their career in the post-pandemic business environment.