Who is your Simon Cowell? – The Importance of Honesty in your Job Search and Career

On April 8, 2011, in Career Management, Networking, Resumes & Interviewing, by TurningPoint
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You are the worst performer I’ve ever seen”! “You may have a good voice, but you are nowhere near being ready for the big time”! “ I would love to see you again after you have refined your craft.”

For those of you who consider yourselves American Idol fans, these words have been a common sound bite for quite some time. We’ve all heard the banter on various blogs, tweets and media websites, surrounding the harsh comments uttered by Simon Cowell over the last 9 years. But before you pass judgment on his unbridled feedback and sarcastic quips, ask yourself something – is there someone in your “inner circle” you can rely on to provide uncensored, honest and constructive feedback which you could then use to better yourself?  I would argue the answer for many of us is no — not because people aren’t willing to be honest, but because we are reluctant to accept their comments and apply them to our careers and/or our job search.

Not a week goes by without a candidate complaining about the difficulty in getting real feedback after an interview. Similarly, we’ve all been in management meetings or have sat through an annual review, only to be told how great we are and that we should “keep doing what we’re doing.” Alternatively, some meetings quickly devolve into a blame game – “If you hadn’t been late getting me those numbers, I could’ve made my deadline. You’re always holding me up”! (when in reality, had our boss given us more than 90 minutes notice, we probably could have met his timetable without problem). In both cases, there is a complete lack of constructive, honest and relevant feedback.

As a recruiter – and I know this to be true for many HR professionals as well – it is sometimes difficult to discern which candidates will be receptive to feedback and which ones are just gathering ammunition to launch a lawsuit. This causes many of us to take a more defensive stance. However, it has always been my policy to share appropriate and constructive feedback after an interview, as well as any insights I may have gleaned from my discussion with the candidate. In my experience, roughly 60% of candidates appreciate and accept this feedback; they ask follow on questions and they appear to really take it to heart. I can usually tell by their tone or facial expressions whether or not they plan to use this feedback to improve their future performance; as opposed to those candidates that I know are just waiting to hang up the phone so they can “unfriend” me on Facebook or remove me from their LinkedIn network!

The harsh yet beneficial reality of Simon Cowell’s comments on American Idol is the immediacy factor! Feedback is most impactful when it occurs immediately following the act that it describes. I remember being told by one of my early mentors how important it is to catch employees doing something positive, acknowledging them right away for their behavior. Likewise, when someone makes a mistake or could use some guidance, it is 10x more productive to take them aside and privately acknowledge the error, providing them with an alternate response to be used the next time the situation occurs. When done right, and objectively, this approach will help good employees become great, and great employees can become superstars!

The key to receiving honest feedback, however, is demonstrating one’s willingness to actually hear what is being said. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that every negative comment and positive accolade is 100% void of hidden agendas. You certainly need to keep your guard up in some situations with certain people. But how often do we say we want honest feedback, only to turn defensive as soon as someone is willing to give it? As a former member of Vistage International, a worldwide leadership development organization based in San Diego, I was always impressed by the honesty expressed in our monthly, half-day meetings. One of the keys to this display of genuine concern was adherence to one simple rule:

When receiving feedback from a fellow member, respond with thank you – nothing else.”

At times we were able to ask follow on questions to gain more clarity or additional insights into the comments. But under no circumstances were we permitted to defend, explain or justify our actions to the other members of the group.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my lower lip took about 6 months to heal due to the number of times I was forced to bite it in response to someone’s feedback! However, with time, I started using this tactic in other facets of my life and it allowed me to not only hear more of what was being said, but it invited an increased amount of feedback from a wider variety of people – employees, peers, family, colleagues, mentors, etc. I still have a long way to go to perfect this behavior, but every time I allow myself to react with a “thank you”, I am pleasantly surprised by the result.

As we continue to fight our way through this slow economic and employment recovery, think how much more we could learn about ourselves if we simply listen, rather than defend; if we took the time to reflect on the advice or counsel of others rather than justifying why we chose option A or B; and to consider the possibility that someone with another point of view — or heaven forbid from another political party — may see us more objectively than we see ourselves. Perhaps we will be more productive in our work, interviews, job, family and relationships if we simply invite others to offer honest feedback.

Thanks Simon Cowell, you are a great role model when it comes to honesty and candor!


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