Receiving and Applying Constructive Criticism = Improving

Constructive criticism. Those two words send shivers down my spine.  I don’t like giving it and I am probably worse at receiving it; but I am getting better.  At Cameron-Brooks, we spend a lot of time coaching JMOs on how to answer the question, “How do you give constructive criticism?”  We do not spend much time coaching each other or our candidates on how to receive it.   Therefore, this post is about receiving constructive criticism and why it so important to be open to it, appreciate it ,and apply it, in order to improve and grow.

First, I need to share my story.  Early in my career at Cameron-Brooks, I was really bad at receiving constructive feedback and applying it .  Every time I spoke to a company or a candidate it seemed Roger Cameron, Rene Brooks, or Chuck Alvarez would be right there after my conversation to provide critique and offer alternative ways to handle the situation.  My body language, facial expression and tone of voice told them I didn’t appreciate the critique and didn’t see the value in it.  I even remember someone editing one of my letters to candidates enrolled in our Development and Preparation Program © . I was so upset that someone would critique my writing or points, that I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.  I mean, someone took time to review my work and give me feedback, and I discarded it.  Not good.  I was viewing constructive feedback as a sign that people saw me as weak, young, or ignorant, rather than that people saw a lot of potential in me and wanted me to achieve my goals.

Finally, Roger Cameron took me aside.  He said, “Joel, you have two choices.  You can be great or you can be average – but only you can decide.  If you want to be great, decide right now if you are willing to not only receive constructive feedback but also seek it out, appreciate it and apply it.  If you want to be mediocre, continue to be defensive.  Pretty soon people will stop giving you constructive feedback to help you improve because they won’t want to deal with your reaction.  People care about you and your performance but they don’t want to deal with your defensive attitude.”  It hurt but it was reality.

The day Roger said this to me, I went home and really thought about my choice.  It was easy.  I knew I was wrong, and I wanted to improve and achieve my potential.  The next day, I wrote a big note on my bulletin board, “DBD” which stood for Don’t Be Defensive.  I committed to learning from others and being open to constructive feedback.  I made a huge step forward that day and I haven’t looked back.

Being open to, appreciative of, and applying feedback is the first step; but I learned if I really wanted to grow, I needed to go one more step and take the  initiative to seek out feedback.  I often go to others at Cameron-Brooks and ask them for their advice on how to handle an issue and to give me suggestions on my approach.  I replay conversations I have had to Roger Cameron and Rene Brooks  explaining how I handled them, and ask how they would have responded.  Every time I do this, I grow and I add tools to my skill set. 

I am applying these lessons to all facets of my life, to include parenting.  Some of you may know that Susan, my wife, and I are foster parents.  It’s hard parenting someone else’s children. I thought I was good at parenting , but this has challenged me.  I am getting better because when I know I didn’t handle something well, I ask Susan, “What could I have done better?”  It’s amazing the better alternatives we come up with for the next time.

The idea for this post came from Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated.  He talks about what it takes to get better at your work.  Because you can’t necessarily practice while you are at work, it is critical to utilize constructive feedback from peers, bosses and yourself.  I completely agree.

Here is what has worked for me:

1) Change your mindset.  If someone is giving you constructive feedback, it’s because that person cares about you – not because he/she doesn’t like you.  If they didn’t like you, they wouldn’t take the time to talk to you, period.

2) Listen, write it down, and find ways to apply it.  Too many people get defensive.  I have found that if I am writing down feedback, I can’t talk back.

3) Thank the person who takes time to give you feedback, so they know you appreciate it.  This may be hard, but remember, they probably care about you.

4) Remember, it is also hard for leaders and others to give people constructive feedback.  I can’t think of one time I looked forward to giving critical feedback to anyone.  Make it easy for the person.

5) Once you master receiving and applying it, take the initiative and seek it out. 

Joel Junker