Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

There’s Something You Should Know

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Image: Welder-trainee Josie Lucille Owens plies her trade on the SS George Washington Carver (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration 1941-45)

Do you have superior intelligence? Unparalleled technical expertise? Extraordinary vision? If so, you are no doubt wondering: How it is possible to be so talented, yet repeatedly unsuccessful when trying to land a bigger job, a coveted committee assignment, or a more visible professional association role?

You probably have some theories about that, and I can imagine what they might be. Perhaps your exceptional productivity makes the slackers around you uncomfortable. Peers are just jealous of your laser-like focus. You speak the truth and most people can’t handle hearing it. Decision makers are too dense to recognize your brilliance. Or, the always reliable standby: Politics are at play.

Those are all reasonable explanations that many of us have posited to make sense of rejection. It is far more comforting to blame others than to explore the possibility that we are the source of our own problems.

Our tendency to blame others is no surprise. We often don’t understand that we’re holding ourselves back — because those around us are too afraid or reluctant to tell us what we need to know. They are happy to speak up when our statistical analysis appears flawed, our sentence structure is awkward, or our forecasts seem overly optimistic. But when it comes to commenting on elements of our personal style that make us annoying or even insufferable, everything goes dark. Many of us learn far too late that the personality attributes we consider to be our strengths have actually become weaknesses. And too many of us really have no idea about how we appear to others.

Consider the following:

  • We see ourselves as tenacious. Our colleagues view us as unrelenting.
  • We like to build consensus. Our colleagues claim we are indecisive.
  • We believe it is helpful to be direct. Our colleagues consider us caustic.
  • We pride ourselves on finding answers. Our colleagues say we expect others to drop everything when we have a problem.
  • We know the value of detailed analysis. Our colleagues say we spend too much time on minutiae.

Do any of those sound vaguely familiar? If so, is there anything we can do to identify — and try to temper — what seem like ingrained personality traits?

Some corporations offer 360-degree feedback surveys and analysis, followed by ongoing coaching, but that kind of leadership development is less common in higher education. So if you are genuinely curious and committed to being more professionally effective, here is a do-it-yourself approach you can use instead.

Step No. 1: Make a list of five people who work with you enough to comment on your personal style. Choose at least two whom you especially admire for their success in navigating their own careers.

Step No. 2: Tell each person that you are seeking honest feedback, and offer to take them to lunch, coffee, or happy hour if they will agree to provide honest answers to five questions that you will send in advance. Here are the questions:

  • Which of my personal strengths differentiate me most?
  • When people compliment me out of earshot, what themes emerge?
  • When people criticize me behind my back, what do they say?
  • What are two or three things I could start, stop, or change to be more effective?
  • If you had to choose one thing that might be holding me back professionally, what would it be?

Step No. 3: During the feedback meeting, listen, take notes, and resist the urge to argue or interrupt. Above all, do not punish your conversation partners for speaking the truth as they see it.

Step No. 4: Decide how you plan to proceed. Will you reject anything you hear that contradicts the way you see yourself? Or will you try to deal with any issues that your conversation partners were kind and courageous enough to share with you? If you decide to keep going, then move to the next step.

Step No. 5: Review the themes that emerged and choose one or two of them to work on. Then work them hard. Consider telling a few colleagues what you are trying to change and ask them to call you out (discreetly) when they observe you pontificating in meetings, sending overly pointy messages to the departmental listserv, or engaging in other career-limiting behaviors.

After you have practiced your new behaviors for a while, be sure to get back to your information providers to share your progress and any possible successes that have come your way, thanks to their honest and generous feedback. Then consider a new set of five people who will tell you more things that you need to know about yourself. Because there is always more to know.

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