Let’s start with a question: How hard do you find it to admit that you don’t know how to do something, or that you need help?

We live in a world that values independence, skills and ability to ‘just get on with it’. In many cultures, seeking help is seen as a bit of a weakness, a sign that you can’t really cope. This can become an inability to even seek feedback on performance, especially from peers or more junior colleagues. As people become more senior, this gets more important, because there are fewer and fewer people able to provide honest feedback. 

We need to change this.

A changing world needs changing ideas

The world is changing fast, and nobody, but nobody, can keep up with everything. In other words, we will all need to learn new skills and acquire new information and knowledge. People to help us learn are all around us—our colleagues and family, as well as those with formal qualifications—but in order to take advantage of opportunities, we must be receptive to learning.

Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University has done a huge amount of work on learning. She has shown that the biggest determinant of whether you can learn new skills is your mindset. There are two main mindsets, known as fixed and growth.

Those with a fixed mindset believe that your level of talent is fixed. In other words, you cannot change what nature has given you. If you’re no good at something, you might as well give up. Those with a growth mindset, however, believe that there is always something that they can do to improve. When you give test results to people with a fixed mindset, they ask ‘How did I do?’. Those with a growth mindset say ‘How could I do better?’

This does not mean that you have to feel that you are inadequate. It just means that you recognise that there may be something you could do, or a new skill you could learn, that would make you even better.

Learning to (re)learn

Part of having a growth mindset is being open to ideas and feedback—and recognising that they may come from a wide range of sources. 

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

We might call this approach ‘being coachable’. People who are coachable are innately open to feedback, from whatever source and in whatever form. In fact, they often actively seek it out from all sources. They know they don’t know everything—and they also know that they probably don’t know what it is that they don’t know—but they want to find out. 

Far from lacking confidence or being weak, those who seek feedback are confident in themselves. They are also more effective in what they do. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between coachability and both effectiveness as a leader, and likelihood of promotion. Being open to learning makes you better at your job—and it seems likely that this also spills over into other areas of life.

Becoming more coachable

How can you become more coachable? The key is feedback. 

You need to be open to feedback—and that probably means going out there and asking for it. Most of us are a bit diffident about giving feedback unasked, especially to someone more senior. However, if someone actively seeks feedback, and shows that they welcome it, then we are more likely to be prepared to help. We are also more likely to respond to a direct approach. It is easier to know what to do in response to ‘Please show me how to do x’ than to ‘I can’t get to grips with x and I don’t know what to do’. If we do know about x, there is less sense that you have to say ‘I’m better than you because I know about it’. Your expertise has already been recognised. 

It is also important to act on the feedback. It is hard to give ‘constructive criticism’: to tell someone how they could do something better. If someone has taken the trouble to do that, the least you can do is to thank them, and consider making a change. If you never change in response to feedback, nobody will bother providing it.

Of course some feedback is hard to hear—but that doesn’t mean you should not seek it. Learning involves being challenged, not always told what you want to hear. Open your mind and your ears, and let in the learning. 


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