The long-awaited return of warm, sunny weather has enticed eager gardeners and amateur landscapers out of hibernation. A winter's worth of accumulated sand and road dust is being swept from garage floors and driveways. That long list of home improvement projects---outdoor painting, cleaning out the shed, fixing a saggy fence, preparing flower beds --- can be tackled at last.
But know what?...Spring is also a good time for a self-improvement project, if we are so motivated by the annual urge for renewal. A question one can be encouraged to ask occasionally is: “How can I improve?” Better still, why not direct this question to someone close to us? A good relationship is defined by honesty. Are there people in our lives who care enough about us to not always say what we want to hear, but what we need to know?
Most of us can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. With every success, we are tempted to continue doing the same thing because it seems to work and is comfortably familiar. But, after making a mistake, we can be motivated to try a different approach, one which may result in better success.
Admittedly, it does require some courage to ask: "How can I improve?" What would happen if we asked our spouse or children: "How can I be a better partner or parent?" You might risk being taken advantage of: "Dad, you could let me drive the car to school every day." You might risk sarcasm: "Dear, how could someone as perfect a husband as you are possibly need to improve?" Most importantly, it helps if you can muster up a thick skin…You do risk hearing a painful truth, but that honesty, if well-intended, could make a good relationship even better.
The same openness to helpful criticism can apply to work situations, either as boss or employee. Too many trainees, those on internships, apprenticeships or practicums focus on demonstrating their mastery of a task rather than on their eagerness to learn do it better.
As a newspaper editor, I once had the bright idea of conducting occasional meetings with reportorial staff to review and discuss the handling of specific stories in a selected day’s edition, i.e. was an item balanced in structure and content, was it positioned to best advantage, could it be improved in any way?
I have never forgotten one local news story in particular that had been written by a reporter who had a tendency toward awkward phraseology at times and in editing his copy I condensed several paragraphs so as to improve the flow of the story.
One eagle-eyed reporter at a meeting questioned the explanation of a fact in the portion of the story that I had rewritten, prompting the author to quickly reply “I didn’t write it that way…It was edited!”
“Oh,” the other chimed in…”I didn’t think that you would ever express it that poorly.”
I cannot recall ever again holding one of those types of meetings with my staff. But I did indeed learn something.
Years ago, when he taught college students, a friend recalls developing a simple end-of-semester evaluation questionnaire. He elicited their thoughts on the course and also on himself as a teacher.
These days many professors use more sophisticated tools to measure these same factors. A problem they sometimes encounter is that a successful course might be defined by the popularity of the instructor, rather than the effectiveness of his or her teaching methodology. The professor who is flexible with due dates, tells great jokes and marks essays gently can be evaluated higher than a more brilliant counterpart who is hard nosed with assignments and strict with grades. Asking for honest criticism works best when the one providing feedback does so objectively, without some axe to grind or favours to seek.
How do we receive honest feedback? Ideally, it can be accepted without being defensive, threatened or angry. An ancient Biblical proverb sums it up nicely:
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
Just some food for thought in the weeks ahead as we tackle annual Spring “tidying up” projects around our homes – and maybe even on ourselves if we are broadminded enough to listen to an honest assessment delivered with love(?).