A couple of weeks ago, I got some feedback I didn’t want to hear. I’ve been working with a group of smart, ambitious, mid-career professionals over the past couple of months, teaching them strategies to define and maximise the next stage of their careers. I love this work, and I love working with those types of people. However, one of the challenges, for me at least, is that sometimes they can be pretty blunt.

Mid-way through our programme, participants were asked to complete a survey on how the process had been going. To my great delight, the vast majority of respondents were very happy and getting a lot of value. Except for one. An outlier who thought I was completely off the mark, teaching stuff way below their level, and that I needed to step it way up. Shudder. It was the first time I’d received feedback like that after working with many similar groups over the past five years.

As much as I’d love to have shrugged that outlier off, I couldn’t. I stewed over it for days, with a knot in my stomach, not knowing who the person was. Was it was solely their opinion, or representative of others in the group who hadn’t responded to the survey? My confidence was rocked. I started to really worry about how I’d perform at my next meeting with them. After a couple of days, I discussed it with a friend, who simply said “you’ve got a fruitcake in your group. People like that are gold. Use their feedback to make your stuff even better, even if you disagree with what they’re saying.”

She was right. I planned the next session rigorously, ferociously. I sweated the details. At the start of the session, I thanked the group for their feedback, without going into details. Then I poured extra passion into my delivery, and you could feel the energy of the room humming during our time together. Even more than usual. Awesome. Did it make a difference to that one person? As of this time of writing, I don’t know. But I do know that I stepped it up a notch, and for that, I thank them.

Outlier Graph JPEG

So what did I learn?

Don’t write off the fruitcakes. Common advice would be “if everyone’s telling you, it’s your problem. If it’s only an outlier, it’s their problem”. It would have been easy to say “it’s their issue, not mine”. But I would have missed a big opportunity to grow.

In trying to make sense of the feedback, I wrestled with two opposing inner forces:

  • My confidence in my ability: “I’m good at this stuff!”
  • My insecurities: “But what if I’m not actually as good as I think I am?”

These are like the figurative angel and devil that sit on our shoulders and whisper in our ears. It doesn’t serve us to ignore the devil and listen only to the angel. We need to take on board both voices.

Why? There are at least two good reasons why listening to difference can help. First, it accelerates the innovation. Inspiration often comes from the margins, not from the mainstream. (See my previous post on Networked Leadership for more on that idea). Second, it can help us see (and therefore test) the assumptions that might be holding us back, and help us to get back to a beginner’s mindset. If we want to master our chosen field, these practices are essential.

To accelerate your own development, here are three questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Who might I have written off as a fruitcake? (That person who just doesn’t get it, the one who’s just a bit too out there).
  2. What could I learn from their point of view?
  3. What might I do differently if I took their point of view into account?

Listen out for the ones who speak with a different voice. That’s where you’re greatest growth opportunity will be.


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