The Difference Between What Should Be and What Is

Posted 11.13.2009

Something appeared in my inbox this week that sparked an opportunity to follow up on a post from last week – Feedback:  Why You Need It and What To Do With It. As an alumnus and faculty member of the Georgetown University Leadership Coaching Certificate Program, I’m a member of a Yahoo list serve in which all of us in the community share resources and get advice from each other. It’s a wonderful ongoing conversation from which I learn a lot.

Realitycheck Yesterday, one of our members put out a question about how to deal with an executive coaching client who has received some clear developmental feedback from colleagues that doesn’t square with his self-image. As my colleague described it, his client spent his energy in the feedback session comparing all of the constructive comments to his own standards and arguing that everyone offering the feedback should be more like him.

By definition, executive coaches coach executives. Most executives have become executives because they’re smart and focused and driven to succeed. Sometimes, their track record of success reinforces a self-perception that they’re right all or most of the time and that everyone else should get with their approach and program.

Needless to say, it can be really difficult for executives who fit this profile to accept feedback that suggests they’re less than perfect. Here is what I think I’ve learned over the past 10 years about coaching an executive who argues with the clear consensus point of view in their feedback and spends all of their energy arguing about how people should be acting or thinking: It’s important to understand the difference between what “should” be and what is. The fact of the matter is that if, when given the chance to provide anonymous feedback, 10 to 20 people have a consensus point of view on what you need to change to be a better leader, that’s what is. Their perception is your reality. If you get tough feedback and you want to keep your team engaged and on board, you’re going to have to change your behaviors to change their perception.

So what do you do if you’re in that situation?  Here are four simple steps that, if you’re serious about dealing with what is, almost always work:

  1. Acknowledge and thank people for the feedback.  Give them a couple of headlines on what you heard that you appreciated and a couple of headlines on things you want to change.
  2. Ask colleagues for their best ideas for anyone who is trying to change whatever it is you’re trying to change.  Write down their ideas in a list.
  3. Pick one or two action steps from the list that you want to incorporate into your regular routine.   The simpler, the better.  Tell people what you’re trying to do. (e.g. “I’m trying to not interrupt people so much.”) 
  4. On an ongoing basis, ask them how you’re doing.  If you keep it on your radar screen, you’ll change for the better.  By following up with them, they’ll recognize that you’re actually changing.

There are a lot of leaders and coaches who read this blog.  What’s your best advice for leaders who need to get past what should be and start dealing with what is?