Do you have a distracting laugh?

“Jolene’s laugh is really distracting.” That comment on a class evaluation took me off guard. As a public speaker and teacher, I have received a lot of interesting comments and feedback over the years, but no one has ever criticized my laugh. I mean, who does that?!? Laughter is good, right? My defenses were instantly up. As I thought about it, though, I realized the possibility that there was truth to the comment. So, I asked three different trusted colleagues, who had seen me in the context of that class, for their perspectives. Two said my laugh was contagious and encouraged me to disregard the comment. One, however, reflected that he could see how my laughter, while speaking on certain subjects, in certain contexts, could be distracting. We discussed it and I implemented some changes to my presentation approach. Several months later, that same colleague saw me speaking and noted he could see the changes I had made and that they did improve my presentation style. I was thankful I had not disregarded the feedback on that evaluation.

Reflecting on the need for feedback in our lives reminds me of a classic tale by Hans Christian Anderson. In the story of the Emperor’s Clothes, the Emperor is duped by two garment makers who claim to make him a robe that is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit to rule. Of course, the robe does not exist. The garment makers simply go through the motions of dressing the Emperor, and he and his subjects are too insecure or embarrassed to admit they do not see the clothes. Not until a young child, unencumbered by his ego or social pressures, calls out that the Emperor is naked does anyone acknowledge that fact.

As leaders, we sometimes make the same mistakes as the Emperor who was too proud or insecure to admit anything that might indicate weakness. Just as the Emperor’s nakedness was apparent to his subjects, our weaknesses are usually evident to those who follow us. Even in cases where we think we are hiding certain shortcomings or fears, our teams experience the consequences of the buried secrets through our actions or the environments we create around us. Effective leadership does not require perfection, but rather humility and openness on the part of the leader to solicit feedback, acknowledge areas for growth, and request help and support from others. Had the Emperor asked several trusted subjects for honest input on his robe, he may have discovered his nakedness before parading before a large, public crowd.

Receiving and requesting feedback as a leader can be uncomfortable and difficult. An initial step might be to ask one or two trusted individuals for honest and constructive criticism in one or two areas of your life. When you receive feedback, it is essential to listen carefully and deny the urge to give explanations.

Take time to reflect on what is said, ask clarifying questions if needed, and express appreciation to the individual for sharing with you. It may be that the other person’s perception of something that happened is inaccurate, but the fact that they perceived it that way may indicate others perceive you or your actions similarly. As a leader, it is necessary to communicate clearly and regularly that you welcome constructive feedback and provide an opportunity for people to give it… either through an open door policy, availability for meetings, evaluations or a 360 review, or responding promptly to emails or phone calls providing feedback. A sincere desire to grow and learn on your part will not only generate thoughtful and helpful input from those around you, but may also inspire them in their own personal growth. So, embrace the “distracting laughter” comments you receive and use them to become an even more effective leader!

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