For the past several years I have been mentoring and coaching new and emerging leaders. One area of knowledge that I try to impart on mentees is learning the skill of self-awareness. Mentoring and coaching can be very exciting and rewarding, and I would like to share a recent example with you.
Open Your Eyes
Learning to be self-aware can be a scary thing to do. In order to achieve a level of self-awareness, you must first be willing to make yourself vulnerable to critical feedback. Most people have a fear of this because it is hard for many of us to hear what we have done wrong. But if you are willing to hear this and act upon it in a positive, constructive way, you will find self-improvement easier to accomplish.
This type of feedback not only can be hard to take but often hard to get from others. Very few people actually are willing to provide you with critical feedback, so sometimes you have to seek it out. Most people feel uncomfortable telling someone their weaknesses or where they may be struggling. One thing I have learned to do is help others by providing this type of feedback. Being self-aware myself, I make sure to do it in a positive, respectful, and constructive manner. However I do not sugar coat things and mislead people by trying to spin it in a complimentary way. I will explain more by describing a recent encounter I had with a colleague.
Trouble in Paradise
About a year ago, we were able to promote one of our technicians to an assistant manager; let’s call him Brad. He had been working for me for about three years and wanted to try management as his next career move. So, I worked with him, coached him, and mentored him to become a good leader. I worked with him on three important skills: transparency, self-awareness, and providing feedback. I also coached him to be open to feedback and actually use it to improve.
It turned out a few months after Brad’s promotion, he ended up taking some time off for a personal issue. When he returned, after several months off, he struggled getting back into the groove. His team lead was still handling most of his responsibilities, including one-on-one meetings with their staff. A few of my peers let me know Brad was struggling and asked me if I could help. Because we worked so hard to get Brad into this position, I did not want to see him fail if I could help. Just to be clear, Brad was now my peer and did not report to me.
So, about a month after his return, I reached out to Brad and we met for coffee at a local cafe to discuss the situation. I got right to the point and told him what we saw happening. I call this pointing out the elephant in the room. I did not start out by telling him he was doing a great job or ask how he felt things were going. Instead, I let him know what I was hearing and that the whole leadership team was concerned.
Many people have a problem talking to others about areas where they need help, and it usually leads to bad things. Team morale will suffer, disgruntled attitudes start to appear, and a lot of gossip happens as the elephant in the room is known to all…except…you guessed it, Brad!
Because I built up a good relationship with Brad, he knew I had his best interest in mind as well as his team. He understood I was not attacking him, trying to get him in trouble, or start a fight between him and his team. In fact, the opposite was my intention and he knew. Brad took this feedback well, in fact. He did not get angry, argue with me, or even deny anything. He thanked me and asked for some advice and time to think about what we discussed.
A Happy Ending
A week later, Brad approached me after our leadership team meeting to thank me. Of course I was curious to hear how he handled this feedback and asked him to enlighten me. It turns out, Brad was so upset with himself once he found this out that he reached out to his team lead, Randy, the night we had that original talk. They met the next day and Brad asked Randy to tell him what he thought, saw, and felt about the situation. It turned out Randy was so frustrated about Brad’s lack of reengagement, he unloaded on Brad and let him hear it all. Brad’s reply to him was positive. He thanked Randy and asked him to please point these things out when he notices them happen.
Brad immediately made corrections to what he identified as problems he was causing. He started running the bi-weekly team meetings, the individual one-on-one meetings, and the day-to-day issues that arose.
A week after Brad thanked me, I reached out to a few of our peers to see if he really was reengaging. It usually takes longer for people to notice when you go from bad to good than the other way around. But in this case, perception was good. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Brad had indeed turned his behavior around, gotten back on track, and was managing his team as expected.
You can tell yourself all you want that you are a great leader. But if you are not listening to what people are telling you, you are blind to reality. If you are a leader, work on being self-aware, pay attention to how you are perceived by your peers, staff, and leadership. Start by building relationships of trust. I do this by being very up front with my staff and peers, asking them to please tell me when they see something they may not like. I always assess this feedback and try to determine if I need to work on improving or not. Be careful; some feedback may not be something you need to work on. For example, if I have to have a hard conversation with an employee and they tell me my expectations are too high or I am just being hard on them, maybe it is them who needs to work on self-improvement.
You can tell yourself that you are a great leader. But if you are not listening to what people are telling you, you are blind to reality.
Another word of advice, grow thicker skin. Some feedback may not come to you in a positive or constructive way. If someone is really frustrated with you and lets the tension build up, they may explode on you all at one time. Consider doing what Brad did. Let them talk, listen to what they are saying, and see what the root cause of their frustration is with you. Unless this person is always the grumpy, complaining type, there is probably value in what they are telling you. Take the feedback, let them know you will reflect on it, and then step away.
The important lesson here is to make sure you do reflect on the feedback you have been given. Depending on the severity, like in Brad’s case, you may need to act quickly to show people you got it. Other times, you may need to seek coaching, training, or guidance to help you. But either way, be more self-aware and willing to adapt to feedback provided to you by others.
Thomas Wilk is an IT manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has become a performance improvement leader, helping employees find their way along their career path. As a mentor to managers, he helps them develop leadership skills so they can better engage with their staff. Tom has a bachelor’s degree in Information Science and is currently working towards a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in the Public Management program. To see more from Tom, visit
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