Engage the Talents of Your Workforce


Beyond Constructive Criticism

August 11, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

“It’s a great sign of respect to me if someone feels I’m strong enough and capable enough and objective enough to tell me when I’ve done or said something stupid. It’s only those who regard me as delicate, sensitive, weak or fragile who will not dare to disagree with me.”

—Abraham Maslow

In essence, Maslow tells us that honest criticism is the highest form of praise. He says that you’re an adult; you can handle the truth and you have the capacity to grow.

Henry David Thoreau observed, “People don’t give you their most effective criticism until you provoke them. Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.” Because most people avoid conflict and want to be liked, they tend to tell you the unvarnished truth only when they are frustrated or downright angry. As a consequence, the truth will not always come across tactfully. Remember, the next time you get candid feedback from someone who appears angry or frustrated, be grateful for those emotions. Without them, the giver may never have found the courage to level with you.

We recently conducted a significant study in which we correlated people’s pay with their attitudes toward feedback. We found that those who were open to criticism in any form—who didn’t put preconditions on it, who didn’t say people had to be constructive or polite—earned significantly more money than those who said they were open to criticism as long as it was “constructive.”

One reason for this correlation is that people who are open to the gift of criticism, no matter how it’s wrapped, get more unfiltered information. With better information, they make better decisions. Better decisions lead to better work results and more satisfied customers. And in organizations that pay for performance, having more satisfied customers leads to higher pay.

The problem with making openness to criticism conditional upon it being “constructive” is that only the receiver gets to define what “constructive” means. Despite the best of intentions, tact and skill on the part of the feedback giver, if the receiver doesn’t like what they hear, they simply label the feedback “unconstructive.” The recipient then claims to have a legitimate reason to dismiss it.

What a weak excuse. In our experience, the person who says he is open to criticism as long as it’s constructive really doesn’t want any criticism at all.

The Key to Extraordinary Achievement

August 4, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

Targeted Intensive Practice Part II

Targeted intensive practice involves a long-term commitment to a process of continuous improvement that will drive extraordinary achievement. This process involves five steps:

Step1: Set Goals. High achievers are continuously setting very specific short-term goals that are beyond their current grasp. Implicit in this first step is the belief that failure is a necessary part of the learning process.

Step 2: Plan. High achievers identify the specific steps that are necessary for them to achieve their goals, and who they need to help them reach their goals. The assumption is that greatness is never achieved alone.

Step 3: Act. High achievers implement their plans with an intensity and focus that demands all their faculties. This is what is often referred to as “practice.”

Step 4: Review. High achievers rigorously review their actions and outcomes against their plans and goals, noting gaps and opportunities for improvement. Feedback from others is a critical part of this review process.

Step 5: Revise. If the goal is not achieved, then the plan is revised and the cycle is repeated. As soon as that goal is achieved, the bar is raised and another goal is set.

How did Benjamin Franklin become the best-selling author of his generation? How did Mozart become one of the greatest composers of all time? How did Michelangelo sculpt and paint himself into immortality? You got it. Targeted intensive practice over an extended period of time.

Think of talents as muscles rather than as fixed, innate abilities possessed by a lucky few. Just as muscles grow by having greater demands placed on them, so too our talents and mental capacities grow when we push ourselves to do difficult things.

Extraordinary innate ability is not the source of our greatness. Rather, greatness is the result of a long-term commitment to targeted intensive practice. We are the masters of our destiny – not our genes.

For those who are familiar with the principles we teach in our career development workshops, we would like to say a little more about talents. Superior talent only determines who will show the greatest promise during the first year in a new field of endeavor. Without passion, people with superior talent fail to push themselves and are soon overtaken. Only those who have a genuine passion for their craft have the self-discipline and drive necessary to continue to pursue the process of targeted intensive practice for a decade or more. In our estimate, extraordinary achievement is 80% passion and 20% talent. This means that people of modest talent and extraordinary passion can achieve extraordinary things, while those with extraordinary talent but limited passion fail to live up to their early promise. Michelangelo was not trying to be modest when he said, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”

Pride and Prejudice: The Roots of Disaster

August 4, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

On January 22, 1879, the British army suffered its greatest defeat ever at the hands of an army equipped with primitive weapons. A British battalion, furnished with artillery and modern Martini-Henry rifles, was effectively wiped out by a Zulu force armed only with short stabbing spears, clubs and cowhide shields. The engagement came to be known as the Battle of Isandlwana.

On the morning of the 20th, two days before that fateful battle, the British arrived at Isandlwana and set up a forward camp. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, decided that there was no need to entrench his forces or even take the rudimentary defensive step of circling the wagons.

Early on the 22nd the British dispatched a scouting party who stumbled on a Zulu force of about 20,000 sitting in total silence. The Zulus went immediately on the offensive. An officer arriving from another battalion gave the following account of the last stage of the battle from his safe vantage point atop a nearby hill:

“In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns [artillery pieces] fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times—a pause, and then a flash-flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the [British] tents had disappeared.” (F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and its Origin, London, 1880.)

As the sun set that day, only 50 British soldiers out of 1,500 escaped with their lives.

How did an army equipped with artillery and rifles capable of firing ten rounds a minute lose to an army equipped with clubs and stabbing spears? Even if the British were appalling marksmen—which they were not—and their bullets found their targets only one time in ten, they had the firepower necessary to inflict over 1,000 casualties a minute.

On the surface, this British disaster was the result of two poor decisions. First, the British failed to establish an adequate initial defense. Second, as was typical for the British at the time, they chose to fight in a linear formation—a disastrous decision which made it easier for the Zulu warriors to utilize their speed and numerical superiority to outflank and overwhelm the British. (Ian Knight, Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory, Osprey, 2002.)

The more fundamental reason, however, was the failure of the British officers to seek and heed the input of their local scouts. The scouts, British subjects of European descent, had lived on the South African frontier for most—or all—of their lives. They understood the Zulu military strategies and their strengths. They knew the battle tactics that earlier settlers had used to defeat Zulu armies that sometimes outnumbered them more than twenty to one. The British officers, on the other hand, grossly underestimated the discipline, motivation, speed, stealth and superb leadership of the Zulu army.

Unfortunately for the British, they saw the colonial scouts as ill-mannered, poorly-educated drunks. A sense of superiority rendered the British officers incapable of accepting feedback from these less refined, less educated subordinates.

It’s unlikely that you will ever have to risk your life in war. Nevertheless, the lessons of Isandlwana remain indispensable to your career and your business. How often, in organizations across the globe, do individuals and groups make disastrous mistakes because their egos prevent them from accepting feedback from those who are different from them, or from those who occupy positions of lower status or power? It is easy to learn from the criticism of people we hold in high esteem and from those who are skilled communicators. What takes real skill and wisdom is to profit from the counsel of those we don’t admire, the rough and tumble “scouts” in our own lives. As noted by Publilius Syrus, “Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.”


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