No One Is Telling You the Truth at Work (And What to Do About It)

No One Is Telling You the Truth at Work (And What to Do About It)
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It was a beautiful spring afternoon on the East Coast. I had just finished a keynote for a client, and to say that I was in a hurry would be a slight understatement. With an alarmingly small window of time to catch my flight home, I quickly shook a few hands, hastily packed up my things, and tore into a run once I left the meeting room. As I sprinted through the hotel hallway, I heard equally fast footsteps in the distance. When I turned around, I was surprised to see one of my audience members chasing after me.

Thinking I’d left something behind, I abruptly stopped. But instead of handing over my laptop power cord, he breathlessly exclaimed, “I’m so glad I caught you! I wanted to give you some feedback on your talk!” And in about three minutes, this wonderful man provided a few unbelievably valuable ideas. The saying “feedback is a gift” is such a painful cliché that we often forget how true it really is.

But when was the last time someone (literally or metaphorically) chased you down to give you feedback? Most of us expect that if we have room to improve in a particular area, surely someone will say something. But sadly, this truism isn’t true at all: we live in a world where people prefer telling pretty lies over the (sometimes ugly) truth.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical meeting: Barb is making a presentation to her peers on a new, clearly ill-conceived initiative. But when Barb finishes, the room is surprisingly silent, save a few utterances of “good job,” “good plan,” “can’t wait to hear more.” Next comes the “meeting after the meeting” (sans Barb) where everyone tells each other what they really thought.

Why people mislead.

Now, when humans behave in such strange ways, it’s because the behavior accords us some kind of advantage as a species. In the early days of the human race, individual survival depended on belonging to a group, and breaking the rules often meant having to go it alone. For that reason, humans are hard-wired to avoid upsetting the social apple cart -- in fact, researchers have shown that social rejection activates the same parts of our brains that physical pain does!

Related: How to Handle Confrontation at Work

At work, though our peers and employees tend to be the biggest offenders, even bosses aren’t immune to this primal fear. I recently heard about a workgroup whose manager abruptly resigned. Each of his five employees fancied themselves his successor and eagerly awaited their upcoming promotion. Not only did that news never come, the company hired someone outside the group. Apparently, unbeknownst to all five employees, none were doing their current jobs acceptably, let alone being considered for a promotion. But had their manager -- or anyone -- told them? Of course not! In fact, all had received glowing performance reviews. Had the employees known about their subpar performance, they each would have had the chance to improve and -- who knows? -- one might have landed the job.

When we don’t know the truth about our behavior or our performance, the result is an enjoyable but dangerous sense of blissful ignorance. Managers who overestimate themselves, for instance, are six times more likely to derail. People who lack self-awareness bring down the performance of their entire team. And companies made up of blissfully ignorant employees even experience poorer financial performance.

So are we doomed to be forever oblivious? Thankfully, almost anyone can take charge of learning the truth. As part of the research for my forthcoming book (due out in May of 2017 with Penguin Random House), I’ve spent nearly two years studying people who have made transformational improvements in their self-awareness -- because this quality is as special as it is rare, one of my research assistants called them “self-awareness unicorns,” and the term stuck. Not shockingly, we’ve found that unicorns make smarter choices, have stronger relationships and live better lives.

Related: 4 Ways to Get Truly Honest Feedback From Employees

Here are three “unicorn hacks” to learn the truth about yourself without sacrificing your confidence.

1. Hunt for indirect feedback.

I was recently interviewing a Fortune 500 CEO on this very topic. I asked him how he assessed his leadership effectiveness at any given point in time. “If I look over my shoulder and people are following me, that’s a good sign,” he said, “But if nobody is back there, that’s called feedback.” Even though people don’t always tell us the truth, they often give indirect signals that belie their real feelings -- whether it’s their body language, their tone of voice, or even what they don’t say. Maybe you’re working on a report and your boss sends it back to you for three rounds of revisions. That’s indirect feedback that you might need to hone your writing skills. Or if you smooth over a difficult client situation and your normally taciturn boss smiles, that’s indirect feedback that you performed well. Even though our world is designed to keep the direct truth from us, simply being a little more tuned in to indirect signals can be surprisingly illuminating.

2. Find loving critics.

As professor John Jacob Gardiner aptly observes, “pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.” Indeed, there are three types of people in our lives: Unloving Critics find fault in everything we do, often because of a lack of trust, perceived competition, jealousy, or insecurity. Uncritical Lovers tell us everything we’re doing is just great; this group includes people who simply think we walk on water (e.g., our moms) or those who are afraid to speak truth to power (e.g., fearful employees). Finally, Loving Critics tell us the ugly truth because they care and want us to be successful. Self-awareness unicorns know that feedback from unloving critics and uncritical lovers is rarely helpful, nor is it necessarily reflective of reality. For this reason, they seek feedback primarily from loving critics -- a supportive spouse, a trusted coworker, a brave employee -- who call them on their nonsense in a caring way.

Related: Five Steps for Giving Productive Feedback

3. Listen first, respond later.

Of course, no matter who we’re getting it from, hearing tough feedback can be excruciating, even for unicorns. To help them deal with this reality, they don’t pressure themselves to figure it out right away. One noted, “when I’m getting feedback, especially if I don’t like it, the main thing I focus on is to listen non-reactively. I know that in a few days, I can come back and figure out what I want to do with it.” Especially with tough feedback, give yourself some time -- then and only then should you ask yourself: Does it make sense? Is it valid? Is it important to act on?

Let’s conclude with a few wise words from author Marianne Williamson: “it takes courage...to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose…the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” Instead of being content with this dull pain, unicorns take charge, bravely seeking out feedback on their own terms -- and all the while knowing that it absolutely is worth it.