Lisagor: Old dogs, new tricks

Among the lessons: Accept feedback, then reflect before making decisions

Many people believe that you can't teach old dogs new tricks. But I disagree. As proof, I cite my work on this column. After reading the first draft, my wife calmly told me it needed a rewrite. I took several deep breaths, then accepted her critique with gratitude instead of anger — and avoided landing in the doghouse.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise. But reluctance to change can cause even more problems. Bad habits left unchecked often become major management stumbling blocks.

During a behavior simulation feedback session, an irate manager told me that my sense of humor had interfered with his attempt at serious communication. He was visibly distressed, and I was in shock. From that experience, I learned that there is a time and place for everything. Acting silly when someone was under stress and needed to talk to me wasn't appropriate. This manager taught me a valuable lesson. I realize it's difficult for my friends to imagine, but I am much more serious now — well, when it's absolutely necessary.

Most managers dwell on how to deliver feedback rather than how to receive it. But a critical lesson in life is the ability to solicit and accept criticism. As effective managers, we need to listen at least as often and as well as we speak.

Feedback can be beneficial, depending on our attitude. I worked with a manager in the 1980s who was so intimidating and close-minded that no one was willing to offer an opinion about anything. One older staff member actually had a heart attack during a particularly stressful confrontation. I stayed up two nights preparing a detailed presentation for this individual, and he skipped to the last slide and started yelling at me. Unfortunately, this senior manager never put down his guard long enough to receive feedback on his behavior. And the company tolerated it. He alienated everyone he knew and seriously hurt business. Projects failed because of his inability to listen to peers, which drove me to leave the company.

We don't have to accept all advice as gospel truth, however. We can receive input with grace and then reflect on it before deciding whether to accept or reject it. An element of truth often can help us become more effective managers and compassionate human beings.

In challenging times of reduced budgets and rapidly evolving technology, a defensive posture is tempting. However, an inability to respond to new realities can eventually threaten even the most secure job position. It's tough to imagine an enlightened manager who isn't open to change.

Progress rarely comes without suffering. Many of my most valuable lessons in life have been the products of painful experiences. Moving forward means listening to others while putting aside fears and close-mindedness. That's the only way I know to teach us old dogs new tricks.

Lisagor founded Celerity Works in 1999 to help information technology executives accelerate and manage growth. He is the program chairman for the FCW Events November PM Summit in Washington, D.C. He lives on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and his e-mail address is lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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