“Oh my,” Barry thought. “Peter, who has the power to block some of my initiatives, hates my guts.”
This flash of insight hit Barry while sitting in a leadership team meeting. Every time Barry spoke, Peter looked away. “As if the sound of Barry’s voice was causing him pain,” writes Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.
And, when Peter spoke, he would make eye contact with everyone—except Barry. “Until that moment, I had no idea,” Barry recounts. “I thought we were colleagues. I thought we worked well together.”
Yesterday, we explored how we can solicit feedback from others on our path to becoming better leaders. Today we look at another type of feedback: observational.
The subtle signals Barry observed that day were significant because they told him he had “a fractured collegial relationship that needed immediate attention,” Marshall notes. Which is why observational feedback—”unsolicited, less than explicit, hard to prove”—is as important as formal, solicited feedback.
“We shake hands with a neighbor at a party and notice that he doesn’t look us in the eye. (Hmmm, we think, what’s that all about?),” Marshall writes. “Coming home after work, we stroll into our living room and our 12-year-old daughter immediately leaves to go upstairs to her room. (Hmm, we think, what did we do to tick her off?) We try to contact a client or customer and he doesn’t return the call. (Hmm, we think, someone’s displeased with us.).”
Observational feedback is powerful. “If we accept it and act on it, it’s no less valid than people telling you the same thing at point-blank range,” he writes.
Marshall recommends five specific strategies to pay attention to what the world is telling us.
1: Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you.
We commit to writing down all the comments other people make about us. As in: “Oh, that was really smart, Marshall.” Or, “You’re late, Marshall.” Or, “Are you listening to me, Marshall?”
We write down every remark about us or our behavior. Then, we look for patterns. “Perhaps a number of remarks will focus on our tardiness, or our inattention, or our lack of follow-up.”
Then we do it again the following day. And the next. We can do it at home, too. Eventually, we’ll “compile enough data about ourselves—without our friends and family members being aware that they’re giving us feedback.”
2. Turn the sound off.
This exercise involves turning the sound off and seeing how people interact with us. Do they lean toward us or away from us? Do they listen when we are talking or drum their fingers, waiting for us to finish? Are they trying to impress us, or do they seem unaware we are present?
“This won’t precisely tell us what our specific challenge may be, but if the indicators are more negative than positive,” Marshall writes, we now know we aren’t making the impression we want.
“A variation on this drill is making sure you are the earliest person to arrive at a group meeting. Turn the sound off and observe how people respond to us as they enter. What they do is a clue about what they think of you. Do they smile when they see you and pull up a chair next to you? Do they barely acknowledge your presence and sit across the room?” Marshall asks.
3: Complete the sentence
We select one thing we want to improve—” from getting in shape to giving more recognition to lowering our golf handicap. Then list the positive benefits that will accrue to you and the world if you achieve your goal,” Marshall suggests. “It’s a simple exercise. ‘If I get in shape, I will . . . live longer.’ That’s one benefit. Then keep doing it. ‘If I get in shape, I’ll feel better about myself.’ That’s two. “If I get in shape, I’ll be a better role model for my family and friends.’ And so on until we exhaust the benefits.”
Marshall’s prediction? As the exercise continues, our answers become more personal. We begin by saying, “If I become better organized, the company will make more money . . . , my team will become more productive . . . . other people will enjoy their jobs more . . . , and so on.” By the end, however, we’re saying, “If I become more organized, I’ll be a better parent . . .’ a better spouse . . . , a better person.”
As our list becomes more personal, we realize we’ve hit upon an interpersonal skill that we are motivated to improve.
4: Listen to our self-aggrandizing remarks.
Perhaps we have that friend who always talks about how punctual they are: “You can count on me. I’m always on time.” When, in reality, they are regularly late.
“In one of those odd bits of reverse psychology, it seems that the stuff people boast about as their strengths more often than not turn out to be their most egregious weaknesses,” Marshall writes.
What are we saying about ourselves? Pay attention.
5. Look homeward.
Marshall’s final lesson is that the flaws in our professional lives are often the same ones in our personal lives. Because our behaviors impact the people we love and care about, we can find extra motivation to make a change.
Reflection: Which of Marshall’s strategies for observational feedback are most interesting to me?
Action: Select and implement two or three strategies above and reflect on what I learn.