Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
Receiving, Reflecting on, and Responding to Difficult or Surprising Feedback
Part Three: External Self-Awareness—Myths and Truths
If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that sometimes the greatest minds in psychology are also the minds in greatest need of psychology. One semester, I worked as a teaching assistant for an esteemed psychology professor. Unfortunately, she hadn’t gotten off on the best foot with her students. They saw her lectures as vague and confusing and her aloof demeanor as an impediment to their learning. And I had to agree. Time and again, her students begged me to bring their concerns to her, but I couldn’t imagine having such a conversation without breaking out in hives. It would’ve probably proven pointless anyway—and perhaps even made the situation worse.
As the weeks turned into slow, painful months, I helplessly watched the situation unfold. She soldiered on, apparently without thinking, and the students became more alienated and disenchanted. Then, one bright spring morning, I was sitting in my office when I received the following e-mail from her:
As we’re winding down the year, I wanted to reach out to a few key people I’ve worked with to ask for your feedback. I’d like your candid observations on what I’m doing well and what I can do better. Please schedule a meeting where we can review your feedback.
I was amazed. Up until this point, she had appeared completely oblivious about how she was coming across in the classroom—and yet here she was, making the brave choice to actively seek feedback. So when my shock eventually subsided, I felt truly hopeful. My professor was giving me an opportunity that, if I responded appropriately, could improve the learning experiences of generations of future students. This would probably be my one shot to do it, so I put everything I had into preparing for our meeting. In the week leading up to our appointment, I spent no small amount of time combining what I’d heard from her students with my own observations. When I finally hit “print,” the finished document was, if I do say so myself, finely crafted, specific, and fair.
The morning of our meeting, I woke up with a pit in my stomach. I still remember standing outside my professor’s office, clutching my handout as I waited for her to call me in, my excitement quickly turning to terror. With sweaty palms, I pushed the document across the table and began my carefully planned monologue.
“All the students really value the depth of your knowledge and experience, but there are times when you can be perceived as unapproachable,” I told her.
Her brow furrowed. “Of course,” I quickly continued, “I have no doubt at all that you’d do anything in your power to help your students in any way you can. But I also think there are a few presentational barriers that are preventing you from getting the very best out of them.” The furrow had become a deep frown. “For example, one student I spoke with mentioned a time when he asked for clarification on something you said in your lecture and you just gave him the page number of the textbook. When he checked it out, he was still confused, but was reluctant to bring it up again. In the end, he just left it and ended up missing two items on the exam.”
By now she looked visibly uncomfortable, shifting back and forth in her chair as if she was sitting on a porcupine. But seeing how much she was struggling with the process made me admire her all the more. So I pressed on, trying my hardest to be respectful but candid, sharing my carefully documented examples. When I finally finished, I breathed a sigh of relief and awaited the words of gratitude that would undoubtedly follow.
What happened next gives me flashbacks to this day. My professor slid my handout back to me and flatly stated, “Well that’s nice. But isn’t all of this just your opinion?”
That’s when it hit me. She had never really wanted my honest feedback in the first place—she wanted the Kabuki-theater version of honest feedback: the kind where I told her she was doing a great job and that all the students loved her, even though that was far from the objective reality.
The point here is that seeking out the truth is a necessary but not completely sufficient step in becoming externally self-aware. To gain true insight, we also have to learn how to hear that truth—not just listen to it, but really hear it. Now I’m not claiming that this is ever easy. Indeed, in my coaching practice, I’ve since seen just about every possible negative reaction to feedback—yelling, crying, silence, denial, you name it. In a misguided attempt to cling to the comfortable mental image we have of ourselves, it’s tempting to react by getting angry and defensive (remember Steve?) or trying to run away (either literally or by not listening, shrugging it off, or pretending it never happened). Even our unicorns get tripped up. But when we make excuses, explain feedback away, or blame it on bad moods or biases, we’re only hurting ourselves. After all, when we stubbornly hold tight to our perspective—looking only in the mirror rather than letting light pass through the prism—we can’t always trust what we see.
In this chapter, we’ll focus on how to successfully receive, reflect on, and respond to feedback. Through a tool called the 3R Model, we’ll learn how to resist the siren song of denial and hear difficult or surprising feedback with open ears and an open mind. As we’ll learn in this chapter, what we hear can take a few possible forms: it might be critical and surprise us. It might be critical and support our preexisting beliefs. Or, it might even be positive, either confirming or opening our eyes to a strength we didn’t know we had. And it’s not until we’ve received feedback that the real challenge begins: to carefully weigh the source, find the valuable elements, and decide what we’re going to do about them. (It would, of course, be overly simplistic to imply that we should blindly accept and act on whatever we hear.) But whatever the case, successfully responding to feedback depends on understanding what we’ve heard—and then lining up the other person’s perspective on our pillars of insight with our own. So let’s start there.
We first met Florence, the Nigerian businesswoman, political activist, and unicorn in the first chapter of this book. In her role as a manager at an oil and gas company in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, she is lucky to have a strong and supportive relationship with her boss. But one day, he gave her some rather unwitting feedback that rocked her to her core.
As part of the prep work for an upcoming training that Florence was attending, the school had asked her boss to fill out a survey describing her work approach. The day it was due, she was sitting in his cozy office waiting for him to arrive for a meeting. As Florence gazed at the family pictures hung with care on the warmly colored wall behind his desk, something caught her eye. It was the feedback form. And he had completed it.
Florence forced her gaze back to the family portraits and tried very hard to focus on the adorableness of his children rather than read something she knew she wasn’t supposed to. When that didn’t work, she checked her phone. When that didn’t work, she closed her eyes and started humming to herself. Worried now about how strange she might look to anyone passing by, she opened her eyes again. And finally, she did what almost anyone in her position would have done: she peeked at the form. Florence saw a question, “How would you describe the participant?” and below it was her boss’s reply—just two words: “Very ambitious.” Her jaw hit the floor, and not in a good way.
Now, to the average Westerner, this feedback wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it would likely be a compliment. But in Nigeria, there are powerful social rules that govern who is “allowed” to be ambitious, and that set of behaviors is only reserved for men. For a woman, being ambitious—that is, wanting to succeed professionally, to support herself, to make her own money—runs counter to her expected place in society, as a mother, a wife, and a homemaker. Therefore, a woman who is ambitious is also seen as arrogant, proud, overbearing, and deliberately shunning the role she is expected to play in the world.
Florence was so shocked that she wasn’t even going to pretend she hadn’t been reading the feedback form. In all her years, she’d never thought of herself as arrogant or overbearing. But in this alarm-clock moment, she realized she had a choice. She could go into defensive mode, or she could use it as an opportunity for insight. Though it wasn’t easy, Florence was determined to explore this surprising new data and come out the other side braver and wiser. And ever the unicorn, she approached this process in a way that’s a perfect illustration of the 3R Model, which I’ve used for many years to help others (and frankly, myself) stay in control of how we Receive, Reflect on, and Respond to feedback. The process helps put our egos and preconceived notions about ourselves aside and focus only on the information directly in front of us, to resist our “fight or flight” instinct, and to turn that feedback into a chance to gain self-awareness.
The process starts with receiving feedback, and Florence had just been given that gift whether she wanted it or not. And though she was shocked to hear that she was seen as ambitious, she was also determined not to let her emotions get the better of her. Pausing for a moment and taking a deep breath, she asked herself what she was feeling. I am upset, she admitted to herself, but there might be something valuable for me in this feedback anyway. Florence’s simple but powerful decision to mine the insight potential in her boss’s feedback led her to wonder, What am I doing that’s causing him to see me that way? This question instantly moved her from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat and changed the conversation from a trial by fire to a fact-finding mission.
But to receive feedback doesn’t mean to listen passively; it means to actively seek understanding by asking questions. Not only does this give us better information to go on; it prevents us from flying off the handle or inadvertently lapsing into denial. Accordingly, Florence summoned the will to calmly ask her boss a series of questions: “Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say ’ambitious’?” “Can you give me a few examples?” “When did you first notice this behavior?” As he answered, she scribbled down his exact words in her notebook to refer to later. She thanked him and returned to her office.
For the next few days, Florence let her boss’s feedback rattle around in her head. After all, she would be in no condition to figure out what it meant, let alone what to do about it, when her emotions were still getting the better of her. Interestingly, when it comes to reflecting on feedback (the second step in the 3R Model), unicorns wisely avoid the temptation to jump in right away. Most reported giving themselves days or even weeks to bounce back after hearing something truly surprising or upsetting.
Soon, Florence was ready to figure out what this strange feedback meant and how to respond to it. To do this, she asked herself three questions. First, do I understand this feedback? Although she wasn’t as upset as she’d been when she heard it, she was just as perplexed. So Florence decided to talk to a few loving critics, collecting more and more insights until she began to understand what her boss had actually been trying to tell her. Although Florence’s gut reaction had been to label this feedback as “negative,” she soon learned that her loving critics had a more nuanced view. Her confidence did sometimes create friction with people, at least initially, but when they got to know her better, they realized that she was neither bossy nor pushy—and that her self-assurance gave her a unique edge.
This then led Florence to ask, how will this affect my long-term success and well-being? Remember, not all feedback is accurate or important, and as I mentioned earlier, unicorns are surprisingly picky about what they let in. After all, as Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” To figure out what is worth listening to, a good rule of thumb is to look at how pervasive a particular behavior is. Feedback from one person is a perspective; feedback from two people is a pattern; but feedback from three or more people is likely to be as close to a fact as you can get. Florence had clearly heard she was “ambitious” from so many people that she had to listen. But, she realized, despite the unfavorable cultural connotations, it wasn’t actually having a negative impact on her long-term success—if anything, it was helping her accomplish her goals.
This realization propelled Florence to her final question, do I want to act on this feedback, and if so, how? Sometimes, even when we understand feedback and determine that it matters, we might decide not to respond to it right away. Ultimately, it’s up to us to figure out whether making a particular change will provide a sufficient return for the effort and time it requires.
Florence did decide to respond to the feedback (the final step in the 3R Model), but not in the way you might expect. This process had led her to discover that even as a woman in her culture, she didn’t have to be timid. She’d begun to realize that her unique combination of humility and confidence was not, in fact, a weakness: it was precisely what would help her achieve great things. And though she would always consider other people’s feelings and emotions, she was going to live her life on her own terms.
So instead of changing herself, Florence decided to change the narrative, starting with her own. With a newfound understanding that her ambition wasn’t a flaw, she cast aside her cultural preconceptions about the term and embraced it. “There will always be people who say ’Don’t climb that high—you will fall,’ ” she says. “But I don’t listen to them anymore.”
Florence’s chance peek at two words on a piece of paper set in motion a series of discoveries that didn’t just increase her external self-awareness, but helped lay the foundation to make a more powerful mark on the world. This is a compelling lesson: if we can receive feedback with grace, reflect on it with courage, and respond to it with purpose, we are capable of unearthing unimaginable insights from the most unlikely of places.
SELF-AFFIRMATION: NOT JUST FOR STUART SMALLEY
When you picture a chess grandmaster, what image comes to mind? Probably someone who is quiet and serious; perhaps a Bobby Fischer—like image hunched over a chessboard, or a studious-looking type in a turtleneck and tweed blazer facing off against a supercomputer. But whatever your mental image, which gender did you assign to your grandmaster? In all likelihood, your grandmaster was male, and in this you wouldn’t be alone. This is just one of many unconscious stereotypes that even the most enlightened people involuntarily possess. But while many of us are at least somewhat aware of the stereotypes we have about others, we often lack insight into a more surprising sort of stereotype: the self-limiting beliefs we hold about ourselves and how others see us. And whether we know it or not, we all have them.
But how do these stereotypes relate to dealing with feedback and improving our external self-awareness? Put simply, when we receive difficult feedback in areas that play into our existing insecurities, it can cut like a knife. Whereas the feedback Florence received from her boss was (at least initially) critical and surprising, sometimes feedback can be critical and confirming—in other words, it backs up a weakness we already believe is there. And unfortunately, the confirmation of those beliefs can cause us to shut down, feel helpless, or give up altogether. In a minute, we’ll learn a simple tool to inoculate ourselves against such responses. But first, let’s see just how harmful our self-limiting beliefs can be.
In 2014, psychologists Hank Rothgerber and Katie Wolsiefer wanted to learn whether the stereotype of chess players as being male influenced the performance of female chess players. Using data from the United States Chess Federation, they analyzed the stats from a dozen elementary, middle, and high school scholastic chess tournaments, looking for patterns in how male and female students fared depending on the gender of their opponents. Just as they predicted, females paired with male opponents performed significantly worse—a full 20 percent worse—than those paired with other females.*1 Why? When we hold negative stereotypes about our abilities—in this case, it was the girls’ belief that boys were better at chess—our fear of confirming them can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, even before we receive any sort of feedback.
This effect was dubbed stereotype threat by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, and it’s been demonstrated for a variety of stereotyped groups and in a wide swath of areas. In one of Steele and Aronson’s studies, when African American students were told that a standardized test was a measure of intelligence (playing into the prevalent stereotype that they’d underperform their European American counterparts), that’s exactly what happened. But when the students weren’t told that the test measured intelligence, both groups scored similarly. In another study, when researchers reminded collegiate athletes, who are often stereotyped as poor academic performers, of their “jock” identities, they scored 12 percent lower than non-athletes on a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test.
Stereotype threat doesn’t just hurt performance on individual tests or tasks; it can seriously limit our long-term success. For many decades since women entered the workforce en masse, there has been a persistent gender gap in the sciences. (Despite no inherent differences in ability, women hold only 22 percent of the science and engineering jobs in the United States.) Many explanations focus on things like cultural expectations or norms. But a full decade before Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, Joyce Erhlinger and David Dunning uncovered another contributing factor. They asked male and female university students to rate their ability to reason about science. Several weeks later, they invited those same students to participate in a supposedly unrelated study of scientific reasoning. Results revealed that women’s views of their abilities were an average of 15 percent lower than men’s, regardless of how they performed on the test. These findings suggest that women’s self-limiting beliefs, and the subsequent choices they make about which profession to pursue, are likely significant contributors to the gender gap in the sciences.
Thankfully, there’s a simple intervention we can use to inoculate ourselves against these self-limiting effects: a process Claude Steele dubbed self-affirmation. When faced with feedback in an area that plays into our self-limiting beliefs, merely taking a few minutes to remind ourselves of another important aspect of our identity than the one being threatened shores up our “psychological immune system.” Let’s say that you’re about to walk into your performance appraisal after a tough year where you haven’t met your numbers. One way you can defend yourself against this looming threat is to remember that you’re a loving parent, or a devoted community volunteer, or a good friend.
This might sound simplistic or pie-in-the-sky, but I can assure you that the research supports it. For example, psychologist Geoffrey Cohen instructed a group of African American seventh-graders who were at risk of stereotype threat to take just 10 minutes at the beginning of the semester to write about their most important values. At the end of the semester, 70 percent earned higher grades relative to a group who did not perform the exercise, an improvement which resulted in a 40-percent reduction in the racial achievement gap. Fascinatingly, there’s even evidence that self-affirmation buffers our physical responses to threat—it reduces our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps us think more rationally and not lose sight of the bigger picture.*2
If you’ve ever seen Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, the self-affirmation process might conjure images of a pudgy man in a yellow sweater standing in front of a mirror repeating in a calm, monotone voice, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Indeed, on the face of it, isn’t saying that we’re great no matter what tantamount to the Feel Good Effect? Might self-affirmation simply result in our trivializing tough feedback or explaining it away?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. And though the Stuart Smalley character probably did a lot for the ratings of Saturday Night Live, he did a disservice to the science of self-affirmation by portraying it in such a comical light. The rigorous scientific research on the practice clearly shows that, rather than causing us to trivialize what we hear, it actually helps us be more open to difficult feedback. And though self-affirmation for its own sake might veer into Feel Good Effect territory, strategically using it to shore ourselves up can help us hear tough truths. According to researcher David Sherman, self-affirmation makes us “more open to ideas that would otherwise be too painful to accept.” After all, when we remember the greater picture of who we are, we can put seemingly threatening information in its proper perspective.
I learned this lesson myself a few years ago. Right around the time I started working on this book, I was getting ready to attend a holiday party thrown by an old high school friend. And to put it mildly, I’d had a pretty bad day. Like many authors I know, when I’m writing a book, I cycle between two polar-opposite emotions: euphoric excitement and crippling self-doubt (my husband has dubbed it ABD, or Author Bipolar Disorder). I had been working on a few central sections and struggling to synthesize some of our study’s findings. Earlier that week, after what felt like a million false starts, I had finally cobbled a few thoughts together. But I was worried that they weren’t working, so I’d shot them over to a friend of mine who works in publishing to get his take.
Much to my horror, he was even less impressed than I thought he would be. Because I was already feeling deeply insecure, his comments sent me into a spiral of even greater self-doubt. What’s worse, I received my friend’s feedback less than an hour before I had to leave for the party. Naturally, I spent that hour sulking around and wondering if I should even go. To hell with it, I thought, if I do, at least I can forget about my book for a few hours.
As I arrived at the warm, cozy restaurant with fogged-up windows and Christmas carols playing on the jukebox, I was elated to see many familiar faces I hadn’t seen in years. For context, my high school experience was an uncommonly positive one. (Luckily, you didn’t get stuffed in lockers for getting good grades or doing theater, otherwise I would have really been in trouble.) An evening reminiscing with my old friends was just what I needed. And to my surprise, I didn’t think about the book even once.
When I returned home later that night, a dull, sweet pang of nostalgia washed over me. Things were so easy back then, I wistfully recalled. But at the same time, I noticed that I also felt a welcome sense of perspective on my writing struggles. My high school self never shrank in the face of a challenge. Why would my current self be any different? I drifted off to sleep that night with a feeling of peaceful resolve—tomorrow I would figure out my vexing book problem, no matter what—and slept better than I had in a long time.
The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and, coffee in hand, padded to my office. I felt the same sensation of dread that I’d felt most mornings that week. I will figure this out, I kept repeating to myself. And just as I was about to fall into another ruminative pit of despair, something clicked. All of a sudden, I saw the material in a new way—a way that made much, much more sense. By the end of the day, I’d sent my revisions to my friend to review, and to my utter relief, he loved them. I realized that the party had been more than just an enjoyable night with old friends; it had provided powerful self-affirmation that helped me put my friend’s feedback—feedback that tapped into my deepest fears and insecurities—into perspective. That affirmation kept my self-limiting beliefs at bay, and inspired me to tackle the challenge anew.
My own anecdotal experience aside, researchers have recently discovered that reminiscing can indeed be a powerful mechanism for self-affirmation. For instance, researcher Matthew Vess and his colleagues asked undergraduate psychology students to recall a positive memory from their past before receiving negative feedback about their performance on an analytical reasoning test. Those who reminisced weren’t just less defensive; counterintuitively, they were also less likely to hold delusional beliefs about their abilities. Other studies have shown that reminiscing reduces rumination and increases well-being.
So whether you self-affirm by evoking the past or remembering your most important values, you can inoculate yourself against threatening feedback and hear it less defensively. Regardless of the approach you use, though, research has shown that self-affirmation is most effective when you do it before getting threatening feedback. And though it can sometimes sneak up on us, as it did in Florence’s case, there are times when we can anticipate this kind of feedback, especially when we’ve sought it out on our own terms. So when you know difficult feedback might be coming, spend a few minutes shoring yourself up first. Think of self-affirmation as an insurance policy: what you hear might not be a catastrophe, but if it is, you’ll be covered.
THE FLAWS IN OUR FABRIC: WHEN CHANGE ISN’T AN OPTION
Entrepreneur Levi King was born and raised on a farm in rural Idaho. After paying his way through college by working at an electric sign manufacturing company, he started a sign business of his own shortly after graduation. He sold it for a healthy profit when he was just 23 years old, and then went on to start a financial services company. But a few years later, a seemingly innocuous action sent Levi down the road to one of the most difficult—but important—insights of his career.
He had just fired a new sales rep for what he thought were extremely clear-cut reasons. But his business partner, who’d hired the now-ex-rep, disagreed. Naturally, both men believed they were right and the other was wrong. Eventually the conflict morphed into an all-out argument about who was the better leader. The partners decided to settle the question empirically: they would each take a 360 assessment, learn the truth from their teams, and compare their findings. When the results came in, Levi was sure he’d be vindicated.
But the truth wasn’t so rosy. His team rated him lower on many measures than he’d expected, and worse yet, all of the things he fancied himself to be best at, like communication, were the things his team thought he did most poorly. This was a turning point for Levi. He realized that he could either, in his words, “double down and become an even bigger asshole, or learn what the heck I was doing wrong.” He chose the latter and embarked on a process to better understand his communication style and leadership behaviors.
Yet after reading many books on brain science and communication, Levi came to the informed conclusion that he might never truly be successful at being personable, no matter how much work he put in. It just wasn’t, he discovered, how he was wired. At this point, you’re probably assuming that I’m about to tell you about how he pushed through this barrier, worked on himself, and emerged from the process a master communicator. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Levi accepted that communication would never be his forte. And he was okay with that.
But was this wise? After earning these hard-won insights, shouldn’t he have worked harder to turn them into action? Here’s the truth: in the process of moving from mirror to prism, we will sometimes uncover things that will be difficult to change—flaws that are woven throughout the fabric of who we are. The best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t always clear-cut, but the first step is to openly admit them to ourselves, and then to others. Sometimes we can make small changes that have a big payoff. Occasionally, we can completely transform. But in a few cases, the right response is, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, to accept the things we cannot change. That’s exactly what Levi did.
Now armed with this insight, it was time for him to come clean to his team. Because his employees had given input to his 360, he knew they were wondering what came of it, and he wanted to be open about the whole thing anyway. So he called a company meeting, which he began by thanking them for their feedback. He then explained how he’d come to the conclusion that working on his social skills wouldn’t yield meaningful returns. “In the future, it’s unlikely that I will tell you good morning,” he told them. “I’ll forget your birthday. You’ll have a baby and I won’t remember to say anything to you about it.” A sinking feeling engulfed the room—his employees wondered why on earth their boss was telling them all this, and what it could possibly mean.
As if he was reading their minds, Levi continued, “But I do care about you—deeply—and I want to tell you how I am going to show you that. I’ll show you by giving you a safe place to work. I’ll show you by confirming that your paychecks clear. I’ll show you by making sure you find meaning in what you do. Those are things I can promise you.”
To Levi’s great surprise, the act of openly acknowledging these new truths paid off in ways he could have never imagined. Now that his team knew that he understood his biggest weakness, they no longer saw him as a too-big-for-his-britches, 25-year-old punk. They could even see the humor in situations where he was behaving badly. One day not long after his bare-all meeting, he was trying to make small talk with his head of HR and finance. He wanted to say something nice to her and noticed that she was wearing a shirt with a flower detail on the sleeves. “That’s a nice shirt,” he attempted.
“How weird,” she replied, “you don’t normally compliment me on what I wear.”
“That’s because you don’t wear nice things—normally you just wear plain old T-shirts.” And instantly, she burst out laughing.
It’s been 10 years (and five more successful start-ups) since Levi’s 360. And he’s found that admitting—and often letting his team playfully joke about—his weaknesses has helped him reach a new level of success. Case in point, his current business credit and financing company, Nav, is growing profitably. And as a testament to Levi’s leadership, it boasts unheard-of retention figures for the tech world. This is all to say that when it comes to surprising and critical feedback, though changing is often a good option, it’s not the only option. Sometimes being self-aware simply means admitting these flaws to ourselves—and to our colleagues, our employees, our friends, and our families—while setting expectations for how we are likely to behave. And as they say, when we let go of the things we cannot change, it frees up the energy to focus on changing the things we can.
So far in this chapter, we’ve seen many examples of people who learned how to cope with disquieting feedback. But it’s worth mentioning that building our external self-awareness isn’t always about learning all the things we’re doing poorly. It’s also about better understanding our unique strengths, skills, and contributions—and leveraging these insights for greater personal success. In the process of learning the truth about how we’re seen, we’re just as likely to encounter pleasant surprises as unpleasant ones.
I had an experience a few years ago that serves as a perfect example of what happens when we get positive and surprising feedback. I met Tom when I was teaching a strategy course to a group of corporate leaders. Tom was a self-professed “engineer’s engineer”—a classic introvert who wasn’t “very good with people.” Tom told me that even though he loved engineering, he was feeling stalled and unfulfilled in his current role. I asked what he’d be doing if he could have any job in the world. He thought for a moment and replied that he didn’t know, but that he was sure it wouldn’t involve another promotion. “I just can’t get anyone to listen to me,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I’m not very influential.” When I asked why, he simply shrugged and said that engineers aren’t usually very good at “people stuff.”
“Why don’t I observe you this week and tell you whether or not I agree?” I offered. He consented, and we shook on it.
During our last evening together, the class was beginning an elaborate team-building activity. They were gathered in an immense hotel ballroom, surrounded by tables piled high with building supplies—PVC pipes, wood, hammers, ladders, etc. Their task was to construct a device that moved a marble from one end of the room to another. But things had gotten off to a bad start. Accustomed to always being the smartest one in the room, these leaders were having a hard time listening to each other’s ideas. Naturally, they weren’t making progress on the task at hand, and I could see them getting more frustrated by the minute.
All of a sudden, I heard a loud, confident voice break through the cacophony—and to my utter surprise, it was Tom. He had climbed almost to the top of one of the ladders and was smiling ear to ear, clearly fired up about the engineering problem they’d been asked to solve. But given what he had told me about his people skills, I braced myself for a disaster. “OK, gang,” he began, “many of you know my background is in engineering. I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas. Tell me what you think about this…”
Just like that, the tone of the conversation changed. All of a sudden, people were listening instead of talking. They were cooperating instead of arguing. They were engaged instead of checked out. And they finished their task far faster than I would have predicted.
I sat there watching, completely dumbfounded as Tom’s exuberant team members showered him with handshakes and high-fives. Afterward, I rushed up to him, grabbed his shoulders, and shouted, “Tom! Do you know what you just did?! That is the single most powerful example of influence I’ve seen this whole week!” I was even more astonished to see him looking back at me blankly, unsure of what he’d just done to warrant such an effusive compliment.
Tom and I spent the rest of the evening talking. Seeing him wrestle with this new, positive data about himself was an important reminder: surprising feedback can often open our eyes to strengths we never knew we had. And though this new information initially threw Tom’s whole self-image into question (after all, he had spent essentially his entire career believing in his ineffectuality at influencing others), by looking through the prism rather than just at his own reflection, he could now see a richer, more complete image of who he was. He had always been a natural leader—he just needed a bit of help to see what was already there. Tom felt a renewed focus, not just in his career, but in his life. “You know what? I am going to apply for that promotion,” he told me, “I think I’ll do well.” And that he did.
While Tom’s strength came as a surprise, sometimes an outside perspective can reaffirm a positive quality that we hope we have in a way that helps us make more confident decisions. Kelsey, a unicorn, worked as a geologist for the first eight years of his career. But with each passing month, his interest in leaving to become a teacher grew stronger. Eventually, the urge was too powerful to resist, and he left his job and applied to a master’s program in education.
When Kelsey announced the decision to his friends and family, he was surprised and gratified by their response. They gushed, “You’re going to be a great teacher! You’re so patient! I’d be lucky to have my kids in your class.” As if that wasn’t enough validation, when word of his choice spread around his tight-knit community, neighbors Kelsey didn’t know particularly well came out of the woodwork to tell him what a smart choice he was making. Even though they’d never seen him teach, it seemed that his reputation had preceded him.
When he’d initially made his decision, Kelsey wasn’t sure if he’d made the right choice—he suspected he might have it in him to be an effective teacher, but how could he be sure? His neighbors’ and friends’ feedback had given him the boost of confidence he needed. What’s more, he figured, if people saw him this way, he now had an obligation to live up to their expectations. Fast-forward to today: he’s thriving as a middle-school science teacher, his students love him, and he’s proven to be a powerful force in the classroom.
At the end of the day, as Ben Franklin put it at the beginning of this chapter, when we “seek information and improvement from the knowledge of others,” there are quite a few outcomes and a few potential courses of action. When we learn something critical and surprising, we can work to change, like Steve; to reframe the feedback, like Florence; or to embrace it and be open about it, like Levi. When we learn something critical and confirming—that is, something that reinforces our prior insecurities or vulnerabilities—we can use self-affirmation to channel it productively and work to minimize the impact of that weakness on our careers and our lives. With positive and surprising feedback, we can acknowledge and further invest in our newfound strengths, like Tom. And finally, as we saw with Kelsey, positive and confirming feedback gives us the confidence we need to continue on our chosen paths.
And regardless of how surprising or upsetting or gratifying that feedback may feel, reflecting on it and responding to it are far, far better than the alternative. As author Marianne Williamson once said, “It takes courage…to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose…the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” The most successful, fulfilled, and self-aware people are simply not content with this dull pain. They take charge, bravely seeking out the truth on their own terms, making sense of it, and using it to improve where they can—all the while knowing that the occasional sharp pains of self-discovery are absolutely worth it.
*1 However, for this effect to emerge, she had to be matched up with a moderately to highly competent (as opposed to an incompetent) male opponent.
*2 In one study, Stage I and II breast cancer patients who completed a self-affirmation exercise coped better with stress—and even showed fewer physical symptoms—a full three months later compared to those who hadn’t done the exercise.