The best women leaders have very high expectations for themselves and constantly raise the bar by seeking constructive criticism. Then, when told where they made mistakes, rather than berating themselves, they treat the feedback as an opportunity for growth and improvement. That constructive narrative enables them to separate criticism from feelings of self-worth.
Constructive criticism is very scary to most women. We are programmed from the time we are young to be perfect. (Good little girls sit quietly, are good listeners, accommodate others, and have a slim body, glossy hair and gleaming white teeth). It is easier to look the other way and carry on the façade of perfection than to ask for performance feedback.
A lack of mistakes, however, doesn’t equate with success. Conversely, corrected mistakes provide an opportunity to achieve superior performance. It is only when we look for ways to improve that we truly reach our potential. And by facing and dealing with these weak spots, we can actually increase our effectiveness without feeling wholly inferior or lacking self-worth.
This really hit home for me when I was listening to a live, on stage conversation at the 15th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with Academy Award winner Natalie Portman. She openly revealed that she is motivated by constructive criticism. When she does a scene and people gush, “Oh, that was great”, her response is generally ho-hum. But when someone says, “Let me tell you how to make that scene better,” she is stimulated, becomes alert and rises to the occasion.
If we want to develop and enhance ourselves (not to mention win a Best Actress Oscar), we have to face the fact that we aren’t perfect. It is part of the growth mind-set. The bottom-line is what do we tell ourselves when we make mistakes?
When told how to improve a scene, Natalie Portman doesn’t immediately conclude that she is a failure as an actress. Instead, she welcomes the advice to become better at her vocation.
One of my personal mantras is that ‘it isn’t what happens, it is what we think about what happens.’ When we recognize that the failure is in the context of the goal, rather than about us personally, we can get down to basics and look for ways to get better. That’s how we advance. By being open to lessons learned, rather than being defensive, we automatically position the narrative constructively.
For example, two years ago at the close of a session at my Mentorship program for women at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business, we asked for constructive criticism. One of the women told us that it was tough to establish a relationship with her mentor because it wasn’t organic.
I could have taken this negatively, thinking that my program wasn’t working. I could have internalized it, concluding that I was a failure at doing matches. I could have been defensive, citing that I warn people at the outset that you don’t have to like your mentor to benefit. I could have tried to make the protégé wrong by saying she didn’t follow the guidelines.
Instead, I thrived on the constructive criticism and looked for ways to enhance the interaction between the matches. Concluding that we bond with people when we share our stories, I made it my mission to understand the elements of story telling. I knew that protégés and mentors would find common ground and establish empathy when hearing one another’s stories.
We integrated story telling into our professional development program and it resulted in a far superior experience for our participants. Protégés now learn how to use story telling to promote themselves, to create a sense of belonging by establishing a network as well as using stories to be more resilient.
Each of us can benefit from seeking constructive criticism to expand our performance and be the best version of ourselves. All we have to do is use constructive narrative to separate our performance from our self-worth.
By giving up perfection and embracing mistakes, we can enter that hallowed ground of women leaders. We just have to remind ourselves that because we make a mistake doesn’t mean that we are a mistake!