Is it possible to improve things like character, a perennial question!? Like most challenges in human relations, leadership and HR, the answer is the same – yes, we can change but it’s slow and not every gap can be completely filled. But most important of all it takes us back to the old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
This is the crux of coaching, of training, of performance improvement programs and all sorts of change efforts: the people who need to change have to want to change. It begins with they have to see the need for change. So feedback becomes incredibly important for several reasons. First it shows the need, second it shows progress of lack of it now that the person is engaged and working to change and third it suggests where to try next whenever the effort to change isn’t working.
It’s probably safe to say most executives do want to change to some degree. We don’t get to the top without recognizing along the way that we need better skills, that some of what we do isn’t working, etc. But we probably would prefer to change invisibly, not publicly have to admit flaws or have them drawn to our attention. We’d all prefer to anticipate and make the changes before anyone really notices we need to. Unfortunately that isn’t always possible. So we’re caught in what is for some a dilemma. To change effectively we need honest feedback, but we would prefer that no one notice our flaws, in which case no honest feedback would be possible. Of course we know people have opinions and observations, but how to get at them without facing the scary feedback process remains for many a great puzzle.
The solution is fairly simple. Ask for feedback. Steel yourself for what you may hear. Make it as painless and worry free as possible for those you ask – don’t wince, snarl, deny or retaliate, even if retaliation is (in your view) minor sarcasm or push back. Thank the person, ask for more whenever they can think of anything and keep smiling while you leave the scene nicely without betraying your inner turmoil or upset. Feedback, even good stuff, is often upsetting and feels off-topic or unfair or all too painfully true. Whatever your reactions, they are the things you CAN keep to yourself while you keep smiling and treat people positively.
Change ultimately is up to us. If we communicate subtly or otherwise that it’s dangerous or unpleasant to provide us with feedback it shouldn’t surprise us when we don’t get it (or only get the whitewashed version).
So, can character be improved? You bet. But like my efforts to stop griping loudly while driving the car when my spouse is present, it isn’t easy. It was painful for both of us. Neither wanted to fight, but we most certainly did on many more occasions than should have been necessary. I even made little notes to myself (somewhat sarcastic at times). One, partly hidden at the bottom of the cup holder said, “Just don’t talk at all.” Making notes turns out to be a helpful step actually. This marked the point at which I made the decision that I had to be the one to resolve the “problem” (whether I truly bought that it was my problem or not at that particular point – I could hold onto that – maybe not all my problem, but I will solve it come hell or high water!) Slowly I began to anticipate my outbursts and head them off. After a couple of years at it, I can see I’m calmer overall and probably a better driver for it, but it wouldn’t have been a good idea to tell me that at the time. The feedback I needed most was simply to understand it made my spouse upset and nothing I could say would change that. I’m happy to report we now take long drive trips together without her threatening never to get in the car with me again.
How many staff relationships would hold up to this sort of stress remains to be seen, but honest feedback like this at work is possible if people respect each other and want to keep working together. It’s rare though and will remain so until bosses start making employees feel more comfortable in saying what they see.