Engage the Talents of Your Workforce


Perception vs. Reality

July 28, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

What Matters More, Perception or Reality?

“Our theories determine what we see.”
—Albert Einstein

A participant in one of our feedback workshops shared this story:

“I’m by nature very introverted, which has created some difficulties for me in my career. The most serious problem surfaced a year or so after I was promoted to management. As with many managers at technical companies, I was promoted not because of my superior interpersonal or leadership skills, but because I had the best technical skills.

“After becoming a manager, I continued to do what I did best, which was to solve technical problems. And I avoided things that made me feel uncomfortable, which included interacting with people on an informal and personal basis. One day I received feedback from some direct reports. They essentially said, ‘You’re unapproachable and elitist. You think you’re better than us.’

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought they must be describing someone else. If anything, I’ve often felt inferior to others, particularly those who seemed so comfortable in social settings. Instead of seeing my behavior for what it was—evidence of my shy and introverted nature—they interpreted it as evidence that I thought I was better than them. Because the feedback was based on misperceptions, I thought it wasn’t valid and was therefore inclined to dismiss it. But eventually I came to see that although their view of me was based on a misperception, it was that view that was undermining our relationship and their willingness to give me their best efforts. The gift to me was discovering that people didn’t react to me based on who I was—shy and introverted— but based on their perception of who I was—aloof and elitist.

“I have often heard the phrase, ‘Perception is reality,’ but not until this happened did I understand what that really meant. Their perceptions of me were creating the reality of an ineffective team. If I wanted a different reality, one that involved an effective and collaborative team, I would have to change those perceptions. That would require me to get out of my comfort zone, spend more time interacting with team members, and sometimes talking about personal interests. I will never be a charismatic leader, but because of that feedback I’m a much more effective manager.”

What we can learn from this case is that subjective perceptions, even when they’re inaccurate, are more powerful in shaping behavior than so-called objective facts. In order to save his career, this leader had to discard the erroneous notion that facts trump perceptions and realize that perception is reality.

Personal Feedback Competition

July 26, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

We are excited to launch our “Personal Feedback Competition”! You have now read the most effective feedback experiences of the authors, Nigel and Michael-John, found on our blog. We would now like to hear your most memorable (powerful, influential, embarrassing, etc.) experiences with feedback.

Post your experiences on our Facebook fan page wall and in two weeks, on August 9th at 12:00pm, the competition will end and the authors will pick their top three choices for the best feedback received. The winners will received a signed copy of our upcoming release of “Where’s the Gift?”. We look forward to hearing from you.

No Pain, No Gain—Michael-John Bristow’s Story

July 20, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

Third Book Blog: In anticipation for our nearing book launch, we find it valuable (and entertaining) to read about the authors personal experience with feedback.

I hate feedback.

At least, that’s how I used to feel. Who wants to go through the pain and hard work of receiving criticism as a gift? Even worse, what kind of lunatic would purposely seek out such painful experiences in order to have more of them?

My point of view has, thankfully, changed. The most helpful feedback I’ve ever received goes back to my earliest memory. It happened in kindergarten, a rather unusual one in which teachers actually graded us and gave us report cards. What I could possibly be graded on at that young age I don’t know, but I remember bringing home report cards for my parents to sign, full of gold stars and smiley-faces.

One day I brought home a report card that was like any other, with one small exception: the teacher had written a note at the bottom. My mom read me that note. It said, “Michael-John is oversensitive.” How did I react to that? Very oversensitively! I cried, ran to my room, slammed my door and didn’t come out for a long, long time. I remember the day that happened literally better than I remember what I had for dinner last night, and that is a good thing. As an adult, my memory of this experience helps me keep my oversensitivity in check (which has had no small impact on my overall ability to receive criticism).

Over the past decade our company, Targeted Learning, has asked thousands of people to describe the most helpful criticism they’ve ever received. Of those, over 75% responded that their initial reaction to that feedback was negative. They reported a range of painful feelings including disappointment, annoyance, sadness, shock, anger and even betrayal.

Because most people in our study reported a negative initial reaction to being given candid feedback, we may wonder how so many of them came to see that criticism as the most helpful of their entire lives. It appears that the gift in feedback is often found not in spite of the pain, but precisely because of it. Paradoxically, it is often the pain in criticism that causes us to reflect on the message long enough to discover the gift in it. The people who should be concerned are not those who feel pain when criticized; rather, it is those who don’t feel much at all.

Don’t Judge Feedback by How It’s Delivered—Nigel Bristow’s Story

July 13, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

No one is a stranger to the importance of feedback, myself included. The most helpful feedback I ever received was twenty-five years ago, soon after I left South Africa to attend graduate school in the USA. I brought with me a strong competitive spirit and a determination to graduate in the top ten percent of my class. Consequently, I didn’t hesitate to fully engage in class discussions and debates.

My favorite first-semester class focused on interpersonal skills. One afternoon, during a discussion on giving feedback, a fellow student turned to me and declared, in front of the entire class, “The problem with you is that you love the sound of your own voice.”

Ouch! The fact that it was delivered for all to hear compounded my embarrassment. To be honest, I was tempted to punch him—but it was an interpersonal skills class, so I bit my tongue instead.

Although I consciously avoided appearing defensive, I mounted a valiant defense in my head. He’s wrong, I remember telling myself. He just wants to embarrass me in front of my peers. I went home that night and told my wife about the incident. I expected understanding. I expected her to tell me he was wrong, that I was just doing my part in the course and that other students should step up if they didn’t like it. I expected her to reinflate my ego.

I was mistaken.

When I told her what my classmate had said, her only comment was, “And that surprised you?”

Try as I might to dismiss what had happened, the sting of the original feedback, as well as my wife’s comment, wouldn’t let me forget. Eventually, I had to consider, What if there are other classmates who see me the same way?

Soon after, my anger cooled and I began to try a different approach in class discussions. I stopped being the first one to voice an opinion; I started listening more. Because of my competitive nature, I found it something of a challenge, but the results spurred me on. The quieter students began participating more in class and I discovered that they often made the most insightful comments. I’d like to think they were pleased with the change I had made. The truth is, I was the primary beneficiary; I learned more when I listened more. I changed a little and gained a lot.

The criticism I got twenty-five years ago helped me enormously. It taught me that those who listen more, talk less and let others voice their opinions before voicing their own get a lot more creativity, ownership and productivity from those around them. And because the criticism I received was delivered so poorly, it helped me understand that all feedback has the power to help us reach our goals—regardless of how it’s delivered.

First Book Blog: Feedback

July 6, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

We are happy to announce the August 14th release of “Where’s the Gift?: Using Feedback to Work Smarter, Learn Faster and Avoid Disaster” by Nigel Bristow and Michael-John Bristow. Over the next six weeks we will provide a weekly blog that will give you a preview of the book and an inside look into the author’s own experience with feedback.

The Path to World-Class Performance

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin reports on dozens of studies that were designed to identify the path leading to world-class performance. The findings are conclusive: intensive practice along with constant feedback and adaptation—not innate talent or IQ—best explain exceptional performance. (Geoff Colvin, “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else,” The Penguin Group, 2008.) It is very liberating to know that. Becoming world class at something is not determined by an accident of birth, but is driven by individual choice that is informed by feedback. Your success is not determined by things over which you have little control, but is driven by abilities that are relatively easy to learn.

Seeking feedback also enhances how you are perceived by others. Ashford and Northcroft found that individuals who genuinely seek candid feedback are more highly valued by their managers than those who simply wait for feedback to come to them. (S.J. Ashford and G.B. Northcroft, “Conveying More [or Less] Than We Realize: The Role of Impressions Management in Feedback Seeking,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 1992, vol. 53.)

Feedback is critical not just for personal success, but also for organization success. Research by Chris Voss of the London Business School demonstrates that customer satisfaction scores are highest for companies in which employees receive timely feedback directly from customers. (Chris Voss, London Business School, The Economist, April 24, 2004, p. 69.) Information from daily, face-to-face customer feedback is more effective at improving customer satisfaction than information collected from annual customer service surveys. Timely feedback is the surest path to customer retention.

In his study of innovation, Gifford Pinchot found that successful innovators within large corporations are masters at seeking and using feedback. Before trying to secure formal sanction for their proposals, innovators informally solicit feedback from potential stakeholders and others. This allows them to identify and then plug holes in their new ideas—before trying to win broader support. By using feedback from potential critics to improve their ideas, the innovators transform potential naysayers into staunch supporters. (Gifford Pinchot III, “Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur,” Harper and Row, 1985.)

Fearing criticism, some would-be innovators skip the above step. When they fail they blame it on “resistance to change”—when it was in reality their own “resistance to feedback” that derailed them. William Simms recognized the crippling power of fear: “Those who want to acquire fame and fortune must not show themselves afraid of criticism. The dread of criticism is the death of genius.”

How the Greats Became Great

July 2, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

Targeted Intensive Practice Part I

Over the past several years, in order to understand the mystery behind extraordinary achievement, we carefully studied the lives of the “Immortals,” people who successfully cemented their names in the grand story of human history: Michelangelo, Mozart, Da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Beethoven, Isaac Newton and many others.

We were able to tease out only three traits common to every one of these Immortals. First, they loved the work they were doing. Second, they each worked incredibly—almost superhumanly—hard for many years in order to achieve their greatness.

But the world is full of hard workers who love what they do yet never become Immortals. What really differentiated the Immortals from everyone else was the third characteristic: their capacity to learn from experience. This skill, it turns out, can be learned.

People often use the word “talent” to explain the mystery behind extraordinary achievement. Most dictionaries define talent as an “innate aptitude or skill.” In other words, our talents are biological gifts conferred upon us at birth and we either have them or we don’t. This notion of talent keeps most people from ever achieving their true potential. The belief that I was not born with a certain talent causes me to do things—or not do things—that guarantee my continued mediocrity. For example, if I believe I don’t have the inborn gift for music, then I conclude that dedicating time and effort to becoming a great piano player is just a waste of my time.

As yet, there is little evidence to support innate ability as the driving force behind extraordinary achievement. Anecdotal evidence exists, but not one peer-reviewed scientific study has proven the connection. In contrast, there are many rigorous studies to confirm that extraordinary achievement is almost exclusively the result of skills and mindsets that are learned, not innate. The process whereby these skills and mindsets are learned is a process we call “targeted intensive practice.” In two weeks we’ll show you how to do it!

If you have attended one of Targeted Learning’s career management workshops, you may be wondering how to reconcile the notion that talent is not the key to greatness with what we have taught in our career management workshops for the past 15 years: that career success requires people to find opportunities at work that are aligned with their strengths (i.e., talents and passions). Stay tuned for our next installment.


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