Create a challenge group

Last week I blogged about my transition to gray hair and the metaphor it held for me. When I posted it, I asked my husband Mark for feedback because he’s one of the few who will be candid with me. After reading it, he mentioned that for a post about how I looked, the photo was “cringy” and I should consider hiring someone to take a professional headshot. He mentioned I looked a little washed out and crosseyed, and that a professional photographer would do better than I did with my iPhone in portrait mode.  

Busted! I did use my iPhone in portrait mode set against the backdrop of an accent wall in my house because I didn’t have the time to get a professional headshot. I found his input valid but decided I didn’t care enough to hire someone yet, and just posted it anyway.

After publishing, the post received far more attention than I had expected. Every person was complimentary about the photo, which was good for my ego but contrary to my husband’s feedback. I relayed to a friend what he said, and she gawked.  “What?!” She protested.  “How could he say that? That’s so mean!”

Here’s the thing – I loved his input and didn’t think it was mean at all. I thought it was highly constructive and accurate. His intention was to help me improve it and he picked specific things he thought were wrong. Even though I chose to ignore his suggestion, it wasn’t because I disagreed with him. I was just being lazy and decided it wasn’t that big of a deal to me. 

Those that know me well know that I love constructive criticism. I want to know what I can improve, what I suck at, what’s not going well, or what things I can be doing better. Sure, I love to hear compliments, who doesn’t? But I don’t get better at anything by hearing “good job” or “well done” or “that was awesome”.  However, I improve by leaps and bounds when people give it to me straight. When the straight talk is rooted in support and love, with specific statements of things to improve, rather than coming from a place of trying to hurt my feelings or trying to demonstrate their intelligence, I hear it better and it gives me something to actively work on. Does it hurt sometimes? Yes. Many times I have to work on not being offended and upset. But at the end of the day, I still love it.  

Turns out there is a decent amount of research in this area. Tetlock and Lerner in Emerging  Perspectives on Judgement and Decision Research coined the terms exploratory thought and confirmatory thought to explain an element of searching out exploratory versus confirmatory information relative to our peer group.  In Kahneman and Tversky’s Thinking Fast and Slow, they methodically outline cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, that keep us from performing our best.  Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out, or only hear, information that confirms what we already believe.  We look for justification, rather than truth, and tend to ignore evidence that suggests we’re wrong.  The recent book Think Again by Wharton professor Adam Grant cites research showing that people who are more open to conflicting data about their opinions tend to be more accurate over the long run. In short, deliberately seeking out conflicting data and being open to changing your mind makes you right more often.

Outside of academics, one of my favorite books, Radical Candor gives the managerial framework on how to improve performance through specific and direct feedback delivered with love. While Annie Duke, one of the world’s best poker players, attributes her success to surrounding herself with a ‘learning pod’ who didn’t just coddle her, but would hold her accountable, call her out on bad moves, and would question why she made certain questionable decisions, regardless if the outcome was positive or negative. 

The notion of an exploratory social group, rather than a confirmatory social group, really resonates with me. A confirmatory social group is one that will just agree with you, to make you feel better.  These are the friends and family who agree with us that we’ve had bad luck, that our boss was being a jerk, that our partner was insensitive, that the test was too hard, that we were not treated fairly because of our gender/age/sexual orientation/race/whatever.   I’m not saying these things aren’t true, but I am saying that if you don’t explore other possibilities, you will never, ever advance. 

An exploratory social group, on the other hand, pushes you to ruminate over other explanations. Maybe you had bad luck, or maybe you shouldn’t have concentrated all your investments into a single asset class, or maybe the boss was calling you out because your work was actually substandard (you did turn it in late after all and waited until the last moment to finish it), or your partner had already asked you 5 previous times to stop leaving your dishes in the sink, or you didn’t really study for the test, or maybe, just maybe, you didn’t get what you wanted because you didn’t ask for it. Or you asked for it in a way that was alienating. Or in the case of my husband, “your photo looks cringy because you look crosseyed and washed out”. This type of orientation is super constructive because even though it can be painful to hear, it gives you something to improve upon.

Giving and receiving candid, direct, and specific feedback, especially when it comes from support and love rather than from attack is one of the kindest and most constructive ways we can help one another. It is at the heart of what we tried to do at Techstars – give rapid, specific feedback to entrepreneurs to help them improve their companies in a short period of time. It takes practice to receive constructive criticism, because when you react defensively or negatively, you prevent people from offering it again, and therefore you miss out on hearing crucial feedback. I often pulled founders aside after witnessing their defensiveness over a particular business decision. I’d say “listen, I don’t agree with that feedback on your decision, however, it’s irrelevant.  Don’t get defensive, get curious.  Ask them why they think that. Understand their orientation and background before being dismissive of an opinion you don’t agree with. Often the nuggets are buried in there. You don’t have to agree with it, just listen to it.”   Learn to smile and just say “thank you, that was hard to hear. I appreciate the effort you made to say it and I will really think about it”. Listening takes practice, especially when you’re triggered.

It also takes practice to deliver candid feedback, it requires a gut check before speaking to ensure you’re delivering it from a place of caring because if you’re just doing it to hurt them, the person won’t hear it and your feedback will be received as an attack.  Am I mad at this person right now? Am I on the same side of the table with them, or on opposite sides? Am I saying this to hurt them, or help them? And it requires specificity. Telling someone they suck is a judgment, but telling someone when they rush into a meeting 5 minutes late all the time, they appear disorganized and frazzled and it lowers your confidence in their ability to handle more responsibility – that is specific and direct. And it’s kind, because everyone is thinking about it, and it’s preventing that person from excelling, and the kindest thing you can do is help them remove the barriers that person has from success.

I have a small circle of friends, including my husband, that serves as my challenge group. It’s not a formal group, they wouldn’t know they’re in it.  But it’s a group of people I go to for feedback, and this practice has improved nearly every aspect of my life.  I trust them to challenge me, to tell me straight, to be direct, candid, critical, and specific, and often I go to different people for different topics. I lavish gratitude on them when they tell me something unsavory, even though it hurts to hear. I work at asking for that really tough feedback especially when I know I won’t like the answer. But my challenge group is small, and I wish it would grow. I wish there were more people that would just tell me what they think, constructively; it’s crucial to my own success. In fact, I dream about the day social media allows people to rate each post or comment as constructive criticism or destructive criticism.  If you get too many destructive criticism ratings, you get labeled a hater and deprioritized in feeds. But if you get a lot of constructive criticism ratings, you get prioritized in feeds. Imagine!

Do you have a challenge group? If not, now may be the time to form one. It doesn’t have to be formal, it can be just a small handful of people you ask to be direct and honest with you, even if it’s scary for them and you. Start with friends, rather than family or significant others, who have a lot more at stake than just feedback. Work on probing them, “Thanks for the compliment, but what did you really think?” or “It felt like I came across as too harsh, what did you think?”. Prompt them, and keep asking questions until you get to specifics.  Remember to work on your reaction to their feedback, they’ll be studying you closely for a negative reaction. Don’t get defensive, don’t explain why you did or didn’t do something, just thank them.  And if you do react negatively, apologize and simply say “It did hurt to hear but I’m so glad you told me, and I don’t want my reaction to keep you from doing it again. I’m working on hearing feedback, please be patient with me, I really do want to hear the bad stuff”.

Maybe you’re not ready for a challenge group yet, and that’s okay. There are a few steps I encourage people to take before forming one. For instance, try to differentiate between destructive and constructive criticism – it’s amazing how many people don’t hear the difference in the moment. Or maybe you’re surrounded by people who are constantly destructive, and in that case, consider helping them differentiate between constructive and destructive feedback, or in extreme cases, consider a new peer group. Try to notice when you are immediately dismissive or triggered by opinions that hurt or don’t match your own – this is when there’s the biggest opportunity for growth. You don’t have to agree with their opinions, remember opinions are just data, but being open to hearing them is a huge step forward. 

If you want to make a step-order improvement in yourself, your success, your relationships, your company, and pretty much every area of your life, consider improving your association with constructive criticism. Seek it out, work on your emotional reactions to it, and form a challenge group. What a great way to tackle 2023.

2 thoughts on “Create a challenge group

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.