Dog dressed as a bee with the caption "My SPSS skills are second to none..."

My SPSS skills are second to none…

Over the weekend I was reading the latest volume of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, More Fool Me. Throughout, the way he purports to see himself (sly, foolish, intellectually wanting…) is a million miles away from the way he is perceived by most of the ‘general public’, who – from an entirely unscientific skim of social media – tend to regard him as a terribly brainy good-guy, whose biggest sin is being a bit smug. This got me thinking (because I’m rock and roll like that) about the differences between how we see ourselves in a professional context and how others see us – particularly about the way in which we perceive our skill, abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

The internet is packed full of inspirational quotes assuring you that  how others see you is not important; how you see yourself is everything. But, let’s not forget that the internet is also full of dogs dressed up as bees, so, you know, caveat lector. Whilst I’d certainly agree that self-perception is incredibly important, in terms of career development and professional progression, the way we’re viewed by others is crucial.

For new and returning doctoral researchers, the start of the new academic year is a good time to gain feedback about and to reflect upon your professional competencies, through discussions with your supervisor(s) as you complete your training needs analysis and decide upon the best ways to meet those needs; for research staff, your institution’s performance and development review process should give you the same opportunity to discuss your development needs and career aspirations.

In addition to these important formal situations, your day-to-day research is likely to provide you with opportunities to reflect on your own knowledge and abilities and to seek informal feedback from colleagues, peers and friends. It can sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable to ask people you know questions about how they view your skills and knowledge but, in my experience, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

In a later blog, I’ll be looking at ways to seek, respond to and act upon feedback effectively, in order to support your professional development, but perhaps the most useful thing, for me at least, is simply:  don’t debate. If you have asked someone for feedback and they’ve given it, there’s nothing to be gained by arguing back – even if you’re sure they’re wrong. You won’t change their mind but you will make it less likely that other people will engage in the process!

If people perceive your skills, experience or knowledge in a way that differs from how you think about them, it can be quite disconcerting, but it can also give you the opportunity to reflect upon your skills, knowledge and personal attributes in an objective way. Taking the time to reflect on feedback is really important, and a good starting point can be to ask yourself some key questions, such as:

  • Are they right? What evidence is there to support your/their view of your skills?
  • How did you feel about the feedback? Was it a surprise?
  • Are you communicating your skills as you want to? What could you do differently?
  • Do you need to update or develop your skills in a particular area? What’s the best way for you to go about this?

Proactively seeking feedback can feel quite intimidating at first, but it can be a really useful way of getting different perspectives on yourself and on your strengths and weaknesses, which puts you in a much stronger position to develop your strengths, to address any weaknesses and to, therefore develop your career as you wish, taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.

What do you think? Is this something that you’ve tried? How has it affected you? What are your tips for successfully seeking feedback? Let me know in the comments below. (image credit here – via beedogs.com)