Tag Archives: Marshall Goldsmith

Self-Questioning: A Magical Move that Leads to Success!

Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book, Triggers, was released on May 19 and is a New York times #1 Best-Seller. This guest blog is from his latest Thinkers50 blog at Marshall Goldsmith Library.

The act of self-questioning—so simple, so misunderstood, so infrequently pursued—changes everything! It is a “magic move” that leads to success. It is a triggering mechanism, and its objective is to alter our behavior – for the better.

What is this magic move called The Daily Questions Process?

Daily questions are such an important part of my life that I do a self-questioning exercise every day and have for years. I value the process so much that I teach all of my clients this exercise in my coaching engagements and classes!

Every day I challenge myself by answering 32 questions that represent behavior that I know is important, but easy to neglect given the pressures that surround all of us today. The number 32 isn’t magic, the idea is to just ask the number of questions that seems ‘right for you’.

Each question is put on an Excel spreadsheet and is answered with a ‘yes’ (use a 1 to represent this on the spreadsheet) and ‘no’ (use a 0 on the spreadsheet) or a number. The process moves very quickly!

In my case, I have a woman call me and I read my answers to her. This helps ensure accountability.

One rule: there is no negative feedback. No matter what answer I give, she says nothing that might produce guilt. She might make positive comments that reinforce success – but this isn’t necessary.

Here are some of the questions that I ask myself. Please remember my questions reflect my values, and might not work for you. Please use these just for example and write your own.

First, I begin with six ‘active questions’ that lead to higher satisfaction with life. Each question begins with, “Did I do my best to…” The good thing about beginning these questions with “Did I do my best to…” is that it is very difficult to blame someone else for my failure. No one can be responsible for “Did I do my best to…” but me!

Did I do my best to:

  1. Increase your happiness?
  2. Find meaning?
  3. Be engaged?
  4. Build relationships?
  5. Set clear goals?
  6. Make progress toward goal achievement?

In terms of the happiness question, my philosophy of life is simple: Be happy now. I have a great life—wonderful wife and kids, good health, love my job, and don’t have a boss. If I am not happy today, someone is screwed up and that person is me!

In spite of all my blessings, I can still sometimes get caught up in day-to-day stress, forget how lucky I am and act like an idiot. It helps to get this daily reminder of the importance of happiness and gratitude.

Here are more of the questions that I ask myself:

  1. How meaningful were your activities?
  2. How many minutes did you watch TV?
  3. How many hours did you sleep?
  4. How many sit-ups did you do?
  5. What is your weight?
  6. Did you say or do something nice for Lyda?
  7. Did you say or do something nice for the kids?
  8. How many alcoholic drinks did you have?
  9. How many minutes did you spend trying to change things you can’t control?
  10. How many clients are not up-to-date?

Some of my questions are about health, such as “How many sit-ups did you do?” (This works. Today I did 200 sit-ups at once. Not bad for a 66-year-old guy!)

Disciplined follow-up is the key to the success of my teaching and coaching. One question is “With how many clients are you current on your follow-up?”

My relationship questions include, “Did you say or do something nice for your wife? Your son? Your daughter?” I am certainly not a perfect husband or dad, but this process helps me get better.

Why does this process work so well?

Because it forces me to look at and live my values every day. If I believe something matters I put it on the list and do it! If I really don’t want to do it, I can see the long string of 0s next to my daily attempts, face the reality that it isn’t going to happen, and let it go.

Imagine that a coach was going to call you every night and listen to you answer questions about your life. What questions would you want to ask yourself, every day?

Now, try it out. Write the questions that you would need to ask yourself every day. Even the process of writing questions will help you better understand your own values and how you live or don’t live them on a daily basis. If you really have courage, recruit a coach or friend and start asking daily questions to each other. You might be as amazed at the results as I have been.

Marshall has more leadership tips in his SoundviewPro course: Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better.

Do You Think Triggers Will Change People’s Lives?

Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book, Triggers, will be released on May 19th. This blog is his answer to those with questions about the concept of behavioral triggers.

The sole purpose of this book (Triggers) is to help you become the person you want to be, to help you change your life. In Triggers, I won’t tell you who you should want to be. I won’t judge you or tell you who should become.

I will tell you why we don’t become the people we want to be. And, I do this for the sole purpose of helping you become the person you want to be. For instance, I explore the Two Immutable Truths of Behavioral Change. These will stop change in its tracks!

  • Meaningful change is very hard to do. It’s hard to initiate behavioral change, even harder to stay the course, hardest of all to make the change stick. Adult behavioral change is the most difficult thing for sentient human beings to accomplish.
  • No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. This should be self-evident. Change has to come from within. It can’t be dictated, demanded, or otherwise forced upon people. A man or woman who does not wholeheartedly commit to change will never change.

What makes positive, lasting behavioral change so challenging—and causes most of us to give up early in the game—is that we have to do it in our imperfect world, full of triggers that may pull and push us off course.

How do triggers work?

Belief triggers stop behavioral change in its tracks. Even when the individual and societal benefits of changing a specific behavior are indisputable, we are geniuses at inventing reasons to avoid change. It is much easier, and more fun, to attack the strategy of the person who’s trying to help than to try to solve the problem.

We fall back on a set of beliefs that trigger denial, resistance, and ultimately self-delusion. They sabotage lasting change by canceling its possibility. We employ these beliefs as articles of faith to justify our inaction and then wish away the result. These are called belief triggers and a few of them (there are many!) include:

  • ‘I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation.’
  • ‘Today is a special day.’
  • ‘At least I’m better than…’

The environment also triggers us. Most of us go through life unaware of how our environment shapes our behavior. When we experience “road rage” on a crowded freeway, it’s not because we’re sociopathic monsters. It’s because the temporary condition of being behind the wheel of a car, surrounded by rude, impatient drivers, triggers a change in our otherwise friendly demeanor. We’ve unwittingly placed ourselves in an environment of impatience, competitiveness, and hostility—and it alters us.

Some environments are designed precisely to lure us into acting against our interest. That’s what happens when we overspend at the high-end mall. Other environments are not as manipulative and predatory as a luxury store. But they’re still not working for us.

The environment that is most concerning is situational. It’s a hyperactive shape-shifter. Every time we enter a new situation, with its mutating who- what- when- where- and- why-specifics, we are surrendering ourselves to a new environment—and putting our goals, our plans, our behavioral integrity at risk. It’s a simple dynamic: a changing environment changes us.

The Solution

The solution I describe is to identify our behavioral triggers (any stimuli that impacts our behavior). These can be direct or indirect, internal or external, conscious or unconscious, etc.

The more aware we are, the less likely any trigger, even in the most mundane circumstances, will prompt hasty unthinking behavior that leads to undesirable consequences. Rather than operate on autopilot, we’ll slow down, take time to think it over, and make a more considered choice.

We already do this in the big moments. It’s the little moments that trigger some of our most outsized and unproductive responses. The slow line at the coffee shop, the second cousin who asks why you’re still single, the colleague who doesn’t remove his sunglasses indoors to talk to you.

Isn’t it time to learn how to be who we want to be in every moment possible? If your answer is “Yes!” then this book is for you.

To learn more from Marshall Goldsmith about improving leadership skills, try his SoundviewPro course: Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better.

A Radical New Approach to Employee Engagement

Marshall Goldsmith has twice been recognized as the top-ranked executive coach in the world and one of the top 10 most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50. This blog first appeared on his website.

In my new book Triggers, I propose a radical new approach to employee engagement. To me, this new approach is the “other half of the equation”, the missing piece, the thing that we’ve been overlooking that could change the business landscape for good!

What is this radical new concept? It’s that the key variable in employee engagement is the individual, the employee, not the program. Although it may sound obvious, this idea is not taught or acted upon. Instead, companies spend billions of dollars every year trying to get employees and leaders to believe that the solution to employee engagement problems is “out there” not “in us”. For example:

  • Historically, almost all of the evaluations of leadership development programs have focused on participants grading the popularity of the speakers. The goal of the program developers is to develop popular programs. Who learns to take responsibility? Who is really being trained? The speaker! The speaker is reinforced for being a popular presenter. The speaker almost never has any responsibility for the actual development of the leaders. The leaders may or may not take responsibility for their own development. Many take no responsibility for implementing what they learn in programs and, not surprisingly, do not become more effective.
  • Historically, almost all of the evaluations of executive coaching is on the popularity of the coach. Companies want to hire coaches who are popular with executives. Who learns to take responsibility? Who is really being trained? The executive coach is reinforced for being popular. The coaching clients may or may not take responsibility for changing their own behavior. Many take no responsibility for implementing suggestions from their coach and, not surprisingly, do not become better leaders.
  • Historically, almost all of the evaluation on employee engagement has focused on the company. These are important things like delivering fair pay and benefits, providing tools and resources, creating a safe workplace environment, and so on. But who is learning to take responsibility? Who is being trained? The company learns to roll out popular employee engagement programs; however, the employees may or may not take responsibility for engaging themselves. Many take no responsibility for engaging themselves and, not surprisingly, do not become more engaged though they do have good benefits.

I am not suggesting that all development and engagement programs are helpful – or that if their ideas are implemented they will work. I am merely pointing out that ideas which are not implemented definitely will not work!

I want you to achieve positive, lasting change, and I want you to have a better life. And while some of your life is going to be impacted by your environment, by a program, coach, or company – a lot is going to be up to you! The fact is that while you can’t make yourself taller, you can make yourself more engaged. And maybe you can’t change your company, boss, or employee, but you can change your reaction to them.

Your success in becoming engaged, being happy, finding meaning, and leading people will largely come from inside you – not from some teacher, coach, or program. It is not just what you learn, but how you (and if you) use it that will make the difference.

You can learn more about becoming a better leader at Marshall Goldsmith’s SoundviewPro course Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better.

The One Question You Need to Ask Yourself before You Say Anything

Marshall Goldsmith has twice been recognized as the top-ranked executive coach in the world and one of the top 10 most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50. This blog first appeared on his website.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of our lives, whether we’re CEOs, entrepreneurs, parents, spouses, engineers or ditch diggers. In some cases, conflict stimulates us to accomplish great things. It can also drag us off course, eroding our relationships, stalling our careers and keeping us from becoming the people we want to become.

So which conflicts are useful and which are counter-productive? As an executive coach, I’ve been helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior for more than 35 years. My experience with great leaders has led me to develop a simple formulation, one that can help you avoid pointless skirmishes and help you take on the challenges that really matter. Follow it, and you will dramatically shrink your daily volume of stress, unpleasant debate and wasted time.

I phrase it as a question:

AM I WILLING
AT THIS TIME
TO MAKE THE INVESTMENT REQUIRED
TO MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE
ON THIS TOPIC?

It pops into my head so often each day that I’ve turned the first five words into an acronym, AIWATT (which I find appropriately rhymes with Say What?). AIWATT doesn’t require you to do anything, it merely helps you avoid doing something you’ll regret.

Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘I don’t need to repeat a simple question to know which battles are worth fighting.’ But I believe that all of us – even the most brilliant and successful – need exactly this kind of help. In my new book Triggers (Crown, May 2015), I make the case that relying on structure – even something as simple as the AIWATT question – is key to changing our behavior.

Why? Because in every waking hour we are bombarded by people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us – the triggers in the title of my book. We often fail to appreciate just how much these triggers affect us, and how difficult it is to fend them off without some kind of support.

AIWATT is just one of the tactics I suggest. Of course, it isn’t a universal panacea for all our interpersonal problems, but it has a specific utility. It’s a reminder that our environment tempts us many times a day to engage in pointless arguments. And, it creates a split-second delay in our potentially prideful, cynical, judgmental, argumentative, and selfish responses to our environment. This delay gives us time to consider a more positive response.

Let’s look at the question a little more closely.

“Am I willing” implies that we are exercising volition – taking responsibility – rather than surfing along the waves of inertia that otherwise rule our day. We are asking, “Do I really want to do this?”

“At this time” reminds us that we’re operating in the present. Circumstances will differ later on, demanding a different response. The only issue is what we’re facing now.

“To make the investment required” reminds us that responding to others is work, an expenditure of time, energy and opportunity. And, like any investment, our resources are finite. We are asking, “Is this really the best use of my time?”

“To make a positive difference” places the emphasis on the kinder, gentler side of our nature. It’s a reminder that we can either help create a better us or a better world. If we’re not accomplishing one or the other, why are we getting involved?

“On this topic” focuses us on the matter at hand. We can’t solve every problem. The time we spend on topics where we can’t make a positive difference is stolen from topics where we can.

Like closing our office door so people hesitate before they knock, asking ourselves, “Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” gives us a thin barrier of breathing room, time enough to inhale, exhale, and reflect before we engage or move on. In doing so, we block out the chatter and noise – we make peace with what we are not going to change – freeing ourselves to tackle the changes that really matter in our lives.

You can learn more about becoming a better leader at Marshall Goldsmith’s SoundviewPro course Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better.

What Really Matters in Life?

Marshall Goldsmith is today’s guest blogger. Goldsmith has twice been recognized as the top-ranked executive coach in the world and one of the top 10 most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50.

Most people don’t want to “do nothing’ all day. We have hopes and dreams, goals and ambitions. We want to contribute to the world, make it a better place, not “retire” from it to a life of “leisure”. For most of us, the prospects of sleeping in late, lounging on the beach, improving our golf scores, living on cruise ships, and lazing about all day may sound good for a short time, but they hold little allure for us in the long-term.

So, what really matters in life? I can boil the answer to this question down to six major themes:
1) Wealth
2) Health
3) Relationships
4) Contribution/Achievement
5) Meaning
6) Happiness

First a little discussion on the themes.

Wealth – some have more than others, some have less, but most of the people I run across agree that while it can be used to pay for nice homes, fast cars, and fine dining, it can’t purchase meaning. Beyond a middle-income level, the amount of money you have bears little correlation to how happy you are.

Health – is critically important to enjoying life. Good health is a combination of luck, a healthy lifestyle, and medical care.

Relationships – are very important. Everyone I meet clearly values their relationships with friends and family members and sees that these relationships are key to their emotional wellbeing.

Contribution/Achievement – for most of us reading this blog we are fortunate in life and seek to give back, make a positive contribution, even leave a legacy. Helping others as we’ve been helped is important to us.

Meaning – work that has meaning is important to our sense of well being. We want to feel that we are making a real difference in the world.

Happiness – everyone I’ve ever met wants to be happy. True happiness can’t be bought – it has to be lived!

As you contemplate these themes and set your goals for 2015, you might choose to volunteer or work on projects that make the world a better place. You might choose to change to a job or a career where you have more opportunity to serve. For me, I still teach and give classes, but I focus more on advising people how they can have a great rest of their lives rather than just work harder and “make more money.”

Reflecting on life’s purpose should start when you’re young—and never stop. I served on the board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for 10 years, so I had a chance to observe Peter personally. He worked until his death at age 95! He was never interested in retiring. He was interested in working to make the world a better place. Through his example, I learned that making a difference means more than, and is very different from, making a living.

Think about your life. Now’s a great time to start planning the rest of it. How can you make a contribution? How can you find meaning? What will make you happy? How can you make this time count—for yourself, the people around you, and the world?

To learn more from Marshall Goldsmith about improving your life, check out his SoundviewPro course Engaging Ourselves at Work and in Life.

How to Get Ahead When Life’s not “Fair”

A guest blog with Marshall Goldsmith, twice recognized as the top-ranked executive coach in the world and one of the top 10 most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50.

Have you ever worked with someone who incessantly whined about how unfair things are, how bad, how wrong or how irrational? When people constantly whine and complain, they inhibit any chance they have for impacting the future. Their managers view them as annoying, and their direct reports and co-workers view them as inept.

Nobody wins.

In the words of the late Peter Drucker, “Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision – not the ‘right’ person, or the ‘smartest’ person, or the ‘best’ person – make peace with this fact.”

As simple and obvious as this statement may seem, I am amazed at how few (otherwise intelligent) people ever deeply ‘get’ this point. When your child comes home from school and complains, “It’s not fair! The teacher gave me a ‘C’ and I really deserved an ‘A’! We, as parents, should say, “Welcome to the real world, kid! In life you have to accept the fact that decision-makers make decisions – and that you are not always the decision maker.” We will always have bosses, teaches, analysts or Boards who give us ‘grades’ that we disagree with.

What can you change, and what is beyond your control?

On the surface, acceptance—that is, changing what we can change and being realistic about what we cannot change in our lives—should be the easiest thing to do. After all, how hard is it to resign yourself to the reality of a situation?

You assess it, take a deep breath (perhaps releasing a tiny sigh of regret), and accept it. And yet acceptance is often one of our greatest challenges. Rather than accept that their manager has authority over their work, some employees constantly fight with their bosses (a strategy that rarely ends well).

Rather than deal with the disappointment of getting passed over for a promotion, they’ll whine that “It’s not fair!” to anyone who’ll listen (a strategy that rarely enhances their image among their peers or gets them that promotion).

Rather than take a business setback in stride, they’ll hunt for scapegoats, laying blame on everyone but themselves (a strategy that rarely teaches them how to avoid future setbacks).

When enthusiasm fades, the initial cause is often failure to accept what is and get on with life.

A few years ago, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune asked me if managers today are more abusive than any time in history (a logical question in a discussion of executive behavior).

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “We still have many inequities and bad bosses, but life is much better than it was two hundred years ago. We used to have Kings, minimal worker rights, and human beings who were ‘owned’ and had no rights at all. In the developed world it can be bad today, but human beings are making some progress.”

We’ve come a long way. Most major companies now believe in certain “inalienable rights” at work. We have the right to be treated with respect. We have the right to be judged by our performance and character rather than by a fluke of lucky birth. If we’re women, we have the right to be paid as much as a man for doing the same job. When inequities such as these arise, they’re worth arguing over. These are the battles that we should be fighting.

But a lot of small stuff remains. A colleague gets a promotion we thought we deserved. The boss showers a rival division with money, ignoring our area. We’re given a hiring freeze while others get every new person they ask for. This is the stuff that still makes us howl, “It’s not fair!”

Such “equity” moments resemble one another in one clear way: A decision has been made that we disagree with. What’s worse, we believe that we are not getting a good explanation—although that doesn’t stop us from re-asking, which is the same as arguing over it. And when we do get another explanation, it’s not good enough for us.

Arguing that “It’s not fair!” doesn’t change the outcome. It doesn’t help our organizations or our families or ourselves. It only lowers our passion. By recognizing this classic trap, we can better determine which battles to fight—and which ones to avoid. At work, and even more so at home, even if we succeed at winning with this whine, it’s not worth the cost.

Once we make peace with the fact that the people who have the power to make the decisions always make the decisions – and we get over whining because ‘life isn’t fair’ – we can become more effective at influencing others, making a positive difference, and even become the person who makes the decisions!

We can fight the battles that are really worth fighting, and quit bugging the world because, “The teacher gave me a C!”

Learn more about being successful in work and life at Marshall Goldsmith’s SoundviewPro course Engaging Ourselves at Work and in Life .

It’s Showtime! One Key to Continual Motivation

Marshall Goldsmith is today’s guest blogger. Marshall is the three-time top-ranked executive coach in the world and one of the top 10 most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50.

Let me start with two well-known phrases:

  1. All the world’s a stage” is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You like It.
  2. The show must go on” is a phrase in show business, meaning that regardless of what happens, whatever show has been planned still has to be staged for the waiting patrons.

Until recently, I always had a dilemma regarding the “stage” of business. As an executive educator, who helps successful leaders achieve a positive change in behavior, I, in a way, teach people how to act.

So here’s the dilemma: When is acting being professional? When is acting being phony? I want to help leaders learn how to be great performers, but I never believe that they should be phonies. How can I, as a coach, understand the difference?

And what makes you “buy” your boss’s, colleague’s, subordinate’s, or even a salesperson’s “act?” The answer is we buy someone’s act when they truly love their profession. We are with them when their “act” is part of the fabric of who, and what they are – and we can feel it in our interactions with them.

Let me give you two divergent examples.

First, one of the greatest leaders I know is Frances Hesselbein, the former executive director of the Girl Scouts of America and now chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute. I am not alone in my assessment of her talents. Peter Drucker once noted that she was perhaps the most effective executive he had ever met. As a tribute to her leadership skills, President Clinton awarded Frances with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian.

I am deeply honored that Frances is also one of my best friends. Like all humans, Frances faces the same problems we all face. She has lived through health problems, tragedies with friends, and family issues. And, like all great professionals, when it is time for Frances to work, she is always there. I have seen her turn down an invitation from the U.S. president because she had already committed to a talk (at no fee) for a non-profit organization in a small town. When she makes a commitment, if it is humanly possible to be there, she delivers. It doesn’t matter that a “better deal” came along later. She not only makes an appearance, she is upbeat and positive, she is inspirational, and she gets the job done.

For Frances, the show must go on, and she takes the stage with love, heart, and passion.  She believes in the core of her soul in what she is doing and anyone around her feels it and knows it. Simply put, everyone buys her act – because her act is truly Frances.

My second example is my client Ted, who helped me answer my dilemma question. I worked with him for a year, trying to help him fit in a corporate culture where he really didn’t belong. At the end of the year, I finally said, “Why don’t you leave? You are so miserable that you are starting to depress me!”

He saw the light, left the company, and is now doing something he loves. There was nothing wrong with the company. There was nothing wrong with Ted. He just didn’t belong there. It wasn’t him.

In the case of Ted, when his show had to go on, he was simply going through the motions. When he took the stage, people around him did not truly buy his act – and Ted did not really buy his own act.

I learned through Ted that despite his greatest efforts, he was being phony when he did not love his work.  And loving your work is what makes great performers rise to the occasion.

On Broadway – Their Act Is No Act

This is why great Broadway performers are able to pour their hearts into each production. At times they overcome headaches, family problems, and more. Because, the show must go on.

Like great actors, inspirational leaders sometimes need to be consummate performers. When they need to motivate and inspire people, they do it. And we are inspired (or buy their act) because they are 100 percent invested in their work and the cause.

Believe in Your Act

If you are in the right job in the right company, and you are learning how to perform to the best of your ability, you are being a true professional. If you are in the wrong job in the wrong company and you learn to act so that you can better fit in, you are just being a better phony. It still isn’t you out there.

Today, Ted is a lot happier. He spends his time thinking up creative ideas in his new company, and he’s having a ball. He is not only adding value for the company, he is also adding value for the world.

Think about your job. As a professional, is your job consistent with the person you want to be?

If the answer is “yes”, be like Frances Hesselbein. Put on a great show. Be the consummate professional. Learn to keep developing your ability to perform, so you can get even better than you are today. If you love what you do, a great coach might even help you get better.

Every day we all take the stage. And, when you take the stage and the show must go on – are people buying your act? And, most of all are you buying your own act?

If the answer is “no”, change jobs as soon as you can. Why bother to become a better phony? Even if you do get a coach and learn to modify your behavior, it won’t count for much. Why? It won’t really be you.

Learn more about how to stay motivated at work with Marshall’s SoundviewPro course Engaging Ourselves at Work and in Life.

Leadership Is a Contact Sport: Ask

A guest blog with Marshall Goldsmith, the top-ranked executive coach in the world.

“Soliciting feedback” is just what the words imply. It is when we solicit opinions from people about what we are doing wrong. As simple as it sounds, it is not always so simple. Most people have two problems dealing with negative feedback. This may not sound like many, but they are big problems. The first is we don’t want to hear it and the second is we don’t want to give it.

The reason we don’t want to hear it is because negative feedback is inconsistent with our self-image and so we reject it. Did you know that of all the classes I’ve taught 95 percent of members believe they are in the top half of their group? While this is statistically impossible, it is psychologically real. Proving to successful people that they are “wrong” works just about as well as making them change.

The reason we don’t want to give it is because our leaders and managers have power over us, our paychecks, advancement, and job security. The more successful a person is the more power they have. Combine that power with the fairly predictable “kill the messenger” response to negative feedback and you can see why people don’t want to give feedback.

There are some other difficulties with traditional face-to-face negative feedback. Most of them boil down to the fact that it focuses on failures of the past not positive actions for the future. Feedback can reinforce our feelings of failure, and our reactions to this are rarely positive. More than anything, negative feedback shuts us down. We need honest, helpful feedback, which is hard to find.

That’s enough about what’s wrong with feedback. Let’s talk about the good stuff. Feedback is very useful for telling us “where we are.” Without it, I couldn’t work with my clients. I wouldn’t know what the people around my client think about what he or she needs to change. Likewise, without feedback, we wouldn’t know if were getting better or worse. We all need feedback to see where we are, where we need to go, and to measure our progress along the way. And I have a foolproof method for securing it.

When I work with coaching clients I always get confidential feedback from their coworkers at the beginning of the process. I enlist each person to help me out. I want them to assist not sabotage the change process. I do this by saying to them, “I’m going to be working with my client for the next year. I don’t get paid if she doesn’t get better. Better is not defined by me; it is not defined by her. It is defined by you and the other coworkers involved in the process.” I then present them with four requests. I ask them to commit to:

1. Let go of the past.
2. Tell the truth.
3. Be supportive and helpful—not cynical or negative.
4. Pick something to improve themselves, so everyone is focused on more “improving” than “judging.”

As you contemplate changing your behavior yourself, without my personal assistance, you will need to do this same thing with your colleagues. Pick about a dozen people with whom you’ve had professional contact—work friends, peers, colleagues—and ask them to agree to these four commitments. When they do, which they nearly always will, you are ready to begin soliciting feedback from them about yourself.

In my experience, there are a hundred wrong ways to ask for feedback and one right way. Most of us know the wrong ways. We ask people, “What do you think of me?” “How do you feel about me?” “What do you hate about me?” or “What do you like about me?” Think about your colleagues. How many of them are your friends? How many of them really want to express to you their “true” feelings about you, to you?

A better question (and in my opinion the only question that works) is, “How can I do better?” Variations based on circumstances are okay, such as “What can I do to be a better partner at home?” or “What can I do to be a better leader of the group?” You get the idea. Pure issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to 1) solicit advice rather than criticism, b) be directed towards the future, and c) be couched in a way that suggests you are in fact going to try to do better.

Finally, when you get the answer, when someone gives you the gift of what you can do to be better, don’t respond with your opinion of their advice. It will just sound like denial, rationalization, and objection. Treat every piece of advice as a gift, a compliment, and simply say, “Thank you.” No one expects you to act on every piece of advice. Just act on advice that makes sense to you. The people around you will be thrilled!

You can learn more about improving your leadership skills at Marshall Goldsmith’s course Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better.