On a leadership program a woman asked, “When did we stop being able to speak the truth?” I asked her what she meant. She explained in her organisation you can rank applicants for a job as ‘suitable’ or ‘less suitable’. You cannot rank them ‘not suitable’ or even ‘not yet suitable’.
She said, “Some people are clearly NOT suitable for some roles. They may NEVER be suitable for some roles. They don’t have the skill, personality, or aptitude for it, and likely never will.”
It seemed a damning assessment of an individual’s potential. My inner Tony Robbins bubbled up wanting to declare, “But we can do or be anything we put our mind to!” Cue firewalk.
The truth is systems and social norms gag truth and cause delusion.
We are afraid to tell someone they are not competent in a role for fear of litigation. If we end someone’s employment for underperformance, we fear being held liable for wrongful dismissal. It’s easier to invent a restructure and offer a redundancy than to give constructive feedback.
The self-empowerment social meme has also done us a disservice. I think of the “So You Can Think You Can Dance” tragic auditions where clearly unskilled people have never been given truthful, genuine constructive feedback about their dance competence. When they are told so in sometimes brutal terms on the show, their cognitive dissonance is painful.
Someone who cares about them ought to have given them genuine, clear feedback. Delivered with care and compassion of course! No need for the drama-hungry sledgehammer approach of a TV broadcast.
The imperative to ‘support others’ dreams at all costs’ is actually costing us all. We give ribbons to kids at sports carnivals for participation. Every kid gets a prize at parties. But what happens when they apply for their first job and get knocked back? There are no participation ribbons for job interviews.
We are building a culture of self-delusion and entitlement.
Our relationship with feedback needs to change. There is an important distinction between giving feedback on talent and feedback on competence. I think it is difficult to spot talent, and perhaps this is irrelevant. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential warns of the dangers of celebrating talent rather than persistence. If we focus on talent, whether we have it or not, then we become self-selecting and limited and develop a ‘fixed’ mindset as opposed to a growth mindset. A fixed mindset dictates giving up if there is no immediate competence on trying a new skill. The growth mindset keeps us experimenting and learning. Persistence is to be celebrated, not talent.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character shows no aptitude or even interest in piano. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he absorbs a cosmic lesson, he has a piano lesson every day. Through repetition, effort, and learning, he becomes a stunning pianist.
If Bill Murray’s character had been guided by a fixed mindset he would never have persisted with piano playing, or for that matter his love interest. In the end he is a slammin’ keyboard ace and gets the girl.
Experimentation risks failure and requires feedback in order to improve and learn.
If all we do is cheerlead others rather than give them useful feedback, then we are contributing to their self-delusion.
Encouragement without truth is deception.
How do you embrace feedback? Do you welcome it or shirk it? How do you give feedback? Is it frank and compassionate or measured and softened? What will you do differently?