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I Hear You Knocking: Success in Business and Life Depends on Who We Let In

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As a business consultant, I try to keep up on the ideas put forward in the latest business books, as well as new trends in our industry. However, some of the best advice I’ve received came a few years ago from a friend in the industry, who told me: “Don’t let people in.”

Yes, I’m aware that sounds like one of those enigmatic Zen phrases; like “the sound of one hand clapping” or “the space between thoughts.” I have to admit that it took me awhile to fully understand what he meant. Once I did figure it out, that idea has helped me greatly, not only in my business, but in my personal life as well.

(Related: The Four People Advisors Need on Their Team Before Trouble Starts)

Turns out that what he was saying is really very simple. His point was that we shouldn’t take what other people say to heart. At least, not until we’ve determined that it’s warranted. I believe that owner-advisors are particularly sensitive when it comes to business because they usually don’t have any formal business training or experience.

Of course, that doesn’t mean someone else knows what they are talking about either. It helps me to remember that information from other sources is just that — information. As such, before we take it as fact and act on it, we need to analyze it. Here’s how I’ve learned to determine the value of what other people say:

Consider the source. I know, this sounds pretty obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call from a client saying they have changed their mind about a plan we made together because their spouse or assistant didn’t think it was a good idea. (Before I get a flood of comments scolding me for disrespecting spouses and assistants, having been both, I can report that neither position gives one any special business insight.)

When someone disagrees with one of your ideas, or even attacks you personally, try to focus on them rather than on you. Why are they saying this? What does it say about them? More importantly, what’s their stake in this conversation?

Often, employees will go on the offensive when they’ve made a mistake to transfer the blame to you or someone else. And, of course, your decisions can affect them personally: their job, their compensation, their advancement or their status. Rather than deal with these conflicts, it’s often easier for them to just focus their anger or fears on you.

Make an honest assessment. Leaders are only human (yes, that goes for most business leaders, too) so we tend to get a bit defensive when we’re attacked. However, for the sake of our businesses, and our own personal growth, it’s important that we determine whether a criticism is warranted.

Even if the other person has a motive for their assertion (see above), that doesn’t mean what they say isn’t valid. Try to put your ego aside (yeah, I know, that’s not always easy), and think about whether some or all of what the other person said is warranted.

However, don’t assume that it is, either. Be as honest as you can about your behavior in question and whether you believe it was the right thing to do.

Get a second opinion. Find a person who is objective about something you did or didn’t do. It can be helpful to talk about it with someone whose opinion you trust. Be sure to make it clear that you want their honest opinion, rather than their support. While it will be hard, try not to get defensive if they side with your critic.  

Own your mistakes. Now you’re in a position to decide what to do. If you’re clear in your heart that your critic was wrong, simply move on. In most cases, an explanation isn’t warranted or even desirable. In extreme cases — say, a disagreement over business ethics — a meeting of the minds may be necessary.

If you decide your critic was right, take whatever steps are necessary to make things right. Don’t forget to let them know they were right, and thank them for their honesty. The success of your business depends on your employees telling you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. How you treat employees who are brave enough to do that will determine your future.

Don’t blame yourself. Nobody’s perfect; not even you. If you try to hold yourself to that standard, you’re doomed to a lifetime of disappointment. In my experience, the key to growing a successful business is learning from our mistakes and our failings. The best business owners — and people — see valid criticisms as an opportunity to get better. So, use your shortcomings as a launching pad to be better.

If we listened to our critics all of the time, people being what they are, we’d never get anywhere — in business or in life. But if we can set our egos aside and see our critics for what they are, we can become better people and better business owners, and we can make better choices about whom we want in our lives. You cannot avoid everyone, but you can be careful who you let into your head and, most importantly, into your heart.

— Read How the Clients You Don’t Take Can Grow Your Firm on ThinkAdvisor.