Accelerate to Higher Leadership

High Potentials: Is the Improvement Advice You’ve Been Given Accurate or a Hidden Agenda?


Is the Feedback on Your Work Behaviors Valid?

If you are seen as a high potential leader or individual contributor, you are expected to be open to all sorts of feedback intended to make you a stronger leader or prepare you for the next level of responsibility. Much of this feedback is advice on your behaviors. This type of feedback can seem a bit personal and intimidating.

Sometimes the person delivering the advice can be overly blunt. When the high potential asks clarifying questions, the person giving the feedback isn’t always able to provide the detail needed to identify the specific behavior causing the perception. When this is the case it may appear that the other person has a hidden agenda or is jealous of your opportunity.

So how can you tell if the person giving you the feedback has your best interest in mind? How can you tell if it is valid feedback you should act on?

The answer lies in listening to your body.

Your brain will highjack you with some message silently stewing in that head of yours. But your body won’t lie. There are three likely responses to help you determine if you should make changes:

“That’s interesting.”

When the advice is given, you view it with curiosity. Your body remains calm. Your pulse rate remains the same. Your breathing remains the same. Your mind says “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps there is something I’m doing that creates that perception.” When this happens chances are only a minor adjustment is needed.

This could also indicate that there really isn’t any behavior you really need to fix and it is more of a projection from the other person onto you of something they don’t like about themselves. When your body remains calm, you are in a position of continuous learning and can objectively look at the situation and incorporate any changes needed.

“I’m confused. Are you certain? This is embarrassing.”

When the advice is given, you aren’t certain how to take it. You’re not certain if it is true and your trying to get your thoughts and feelings aligned to it. At this point forget your thoughts and scan your body. You are looking for a “tell.” A “tell” is an unconscious physical sign that the information is correct. We all have one. For some it is the neck or ears turning hot and red. For some it is a quick release of sweat in the palms or underarms. For others it is a flip of the stomach or a blush of the checks.

Know what your “tell” is. It’s your body’s lie detector and when it goes off it means that a truth has been stated that we would rather not have to confront. Figure out what part of the message created the “tell.” This will help you identify what you need to adjust to have better outcomes in the future. 

“I do not! That’s not me. This is bogus!”

When the advice is given, you immediately want to attack it or attack the person giving it. Your body goes into flight or fight and your heartbeat and pulse quicken. You may start sweating. You may find you straighten your posture. When this happens, get ready because the feedback is accurate and it’s something you were subconsciously hoping that no one would figure out. Your conscious self is just protecting you.

How to Respond to Workplace Criticism

As soon as you get this reaction, take a deep full breathe. This will tell your brain’s amygdala that this is not a lion ready to attack you. The deep breath will allow you to calm down so you can be more objective and less defensive. Next listen carefully to the feedback but don’t respond to it. Just listen to clues to identify the specific behavior, the perceptions it creates and how others experience it. Don’t go to justifying your intent. Only ask open-ended questions and do so calmly. Then thank the person for their willingness to tell you. Let them know you will come back to them after you have some time to think about what you might be doing that is causing the perceptions and how you will correct it. Then leave!

When you are truly calm process through the feedback by saying to yourself, “The outcome was not my intent but there is something I’m doing that created this perception. What could I be doing that might create this perception? What behaviors could I substitute in the future that could better convey my intent?” Once you have that figured out, you are ready to calmly go back to the person who gave you the feedback and share your insights and ideas.

The feedback we have the most visceral response to has deep roots and is not always easy to address on our own. If you can’t figure out what is causing the perceptions and your mind and body want to stay defensive, seek out a coach to help you process through the feedback. A talented coach will help you find the hidden culprit and be able to acknowledge the reasons you use this behavior

Once you get skilled at analyzing your body’s response to feedback you will be able to quickly process through feedback and make the necessary changes. 

All of us have behaviors that no longer serve others or us. Leaders must learn to be introspective and to avoid self-justifying their ineffective behaviors. To do this, they must learn to turn off their brain’s self protective defense system so they can hear things clearly from another’s point of view.

Do you have additional tips for others when they receive improvement advice?

Carlann is Chief Leader Accelerator at Propel Forward LLC.