Career Advice

Advice: You Asked for It; You Got It. What Are You Going to Do With It?

Lisa M. Balbes

Someone just gave you some advice. Maybe it came from your annual performance review at work, maybe you asked for it (we hope using the tips found here), or maybe someone just decided to share a thought. What do you do now?

You could agree and immediately change your work or behavior. For example, suppose you just finished preparing a poster for an upcoming conference. One of your colleagues says you spent too much space on the introduction and not enough on conclusions. Do you automatically stay up all night revising it and have it reprinted? What if someone else comes by and says the conclusions are now too detailed? Are you going to redo it again? Even if you spent all your time making changes, you would never please everyone. So, should you give up and ignore everyone else’s opinions and just do what you think is right without considering other points of view?

As it is for most things, the best course of action is probably somewhere in the middle. By objectively evaluating the advice and opinions of others, you can use their feedback to improve yourself and your work without wasting time and energy on things that aren’t important. This article will help you learn how to do that.

Understand Others’ Opinions

The first thing you need to do is make sure you understand what people are saying. You do not have to agree, but you need to hear and understand their perspectives. If there is any uncertainty in your mind, repeat the comment in your own words to make sure you are clear about the other person’s meaning. You can use phrases like, “If I understand you correctly, you think I ought to cut out a lot of the background information,” or, “To put that another way, are you saying you would have liked more timely communications about the deadlines.”

If you need to, ask clarifying questions. The other person is trying to help you and wants you to understand. Avoid being confrontational, and do your best to understand the assumptions that individual is making and why he or she reached those conclusions.

Remember that no matter what you think, your first reaction should not be to argue with another’s perceptions and opinions. Maybe what this individual saw or heard is not what you intended to convey, but it is helpful for you to know what perception resulted in this individual’s mind. People see what they see and think what they think about it. If you had additional information or extenuating circumstances in mind, you may need to communicate them.

As their first reaction to negative feedback, the vast majority of people become defensive and resist accepting it. They immediately want to say, “No, that’s not true,” and explain why. It is important to resist doing that. You will gain the greatest benefit if you can receive the information as if you were an impartial observer, without immediately reacting.  

Thank the Individual For Advice

Once you understand the advice, make sure to express appreciation for the person’s time, effort, and willingness to help. Often, this is the only reward your helper will get.

Especially if the feedback was negative, ask for a follow-up meeting. You don’t need to set the date then, but do ask if you can make contact in a few days or a week, once you’ve had time to think about the advice offered. This keeps the door open for future communication and shows that you are taking this individual’s concerns seriously.

Process the Information

Your most important step is to take the time to think about what has been said and evaluate it critically in light of what the other person knows, what you know, and what you are attempting to accomplish. You need to process the information to see whether you agree with it. There are several things you will want to consider during your evaluation.

What does this individual know?

  • How involved was the person in the specific activity or action? Too close to be objective? Too distant to know enough to comment constructively?
  • What is this individual’s background and experience? Is there significant or first-hand knowledge in this area?
  • If there is similar experience, is it relevant? Did someone do the same thing, but a very long time ago? For example, if your graduate adviser is telling you how to look for an industrial position, but this individual has only applied for academic positions, and done it 20 years ago, you might not give that opinion very much weight.
  • What assumptions have the person advising you made about you, the project, or other stakeholders?
  • Does the other person understand the parameters and assumptions you were working under?
  • Is the advice or feedback something this individual has found helpful personally, or something the person thinks will work for you? Those may not be the same thing.
  •  What is the motive for providing this feedback? Is this a superior evaluating you as part of the job? Does a friend or colleague have a sincere desire to help you? Is there another reason for this advice?

What do you know?

  • Does the advice fit you now? In the future, would it help turn you into the kind of professional you want to be?
  • Does it point you in the right direction, even if it’s not perfect?
  • Recognize that you are probably biased toward advice you already agree with. Make sure to give equal time and thought to suggestions that seem ridiculous initially— they may hold a kernel of truth. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true.
  • If someone suggests something you have already tried, don’t dismiss it immediately. Have circumstances changed that make the idea worth trying again? 

What do you want to accomplish?

  • Do you have a firm understanding of your professional goals and desired outcomes? Sometimes writing down your goals or verbalizing them to someone else can help you clarify what you want to accomplish.

There may be times when you are not sure what you want to accomplish. You may feel that you need to change direction, or you might wonder whether you could make better use of your skills, talents, or interests.

At these times, an Individual Development Plan, such as ChemIDP, can prove very helpful.

It may help you process information if you find an impartial, trustworthy, understanding person who will listen as you talk through the feedback and what you think of it. Ideally, you will want someone who knows you but does not have any preconceived notions about the activity being evaluated. Ask this individual to listen carefully, ask clarifying questions, and help you organize your thoughts.

It may also help to complain to this individual for awhile first, to help you vent your feelings so your mind will be free to get down to the hard work of making changes. It can help to say, “I just need to complain right now,” or, “I’m ready to work on a plan to improve. Can you listen to my ideas?”

Don’t become defensive about your past choices. You made the best decisions you could with the information you had at the time, and you can’t change the past. However, you can learn from it and change what you’re going to do in the future. You just need to figure out what needs to happen in response to any helpful feedback you have received.

Develop a Plan

Once you’ve decided what changes are necessary, create a plan with specific actions and deadlines. If you received a lot of advice from different people, you will have to prioritize what to do first and what can wait.

Maybe you were told you need to improve your public speaking skills, so you plan to join a local Toastmaster’s club and attend at least one meeting per month for six months. Maybe you were told you need to improve your leadership skills, so you are going to volunteer to organize and run an event for your local ACS chapter in the next three months and then run for a position as an officer.

You may want to run your plan by the feedback’s contributor to see whether that individual has any input to make it better. (Yes, you are asking for feedback on your plan to act on earlier feedback.) This conversation also gives you a chance to show the person that you are taking stated concerns seriously. Or, depending on the situation and relationship, if you’re not going to act on the feedback, you may want to explain why. If you choose this approach, make sure you can do it without being defensive or argumentative.

Then implement your plan. Start working toward your goals and meeting the milestones you have set out. Being proactive and actually doing something about negative feedback will make you not only feel better, but be better in the future. Evaluate your progress on a regular basis and make sure both you and the other stakeholders agree that you are improving.

Return the Favor

Finally, as you advance in your career, look for ways that you can provide constructive criticism when someone asks or when you have something to contribute and think the other person will be receptive.

If you don’t know about a problem, you can’t fix it, and the only way to know what other people think is if they tell you. Accept feedback as the valuable information that it is and use it to improve yourself and your professional skills. Over time, you may find that feedback you might not have welcomed at the time has helped you lay the foundations for a more successful and fulfilling career.