Thought you were done learning because you’re no longer in school?

As a leader with more than 20 years of management experience, I’ve repeatedly been caught off guard by the resentment many individuals show when receiving feedback, even in situations where it is expected like project reviews or annual employee reviews. Yet, I’ve also seen that individuals who can accept and act on criticism are most likely to excel in job tasks, to receive additional work responsibilities, and to be promoted.

constructive criticism

Why this disconnect? If we know feedback is good for us, why do we occasionally push back or refuse to adjust our work or behavior? Assuming the criticism is appropriately delivered, why do we find it tough to recognize our limitations and act to improve?

Greek mythology tells a story of the origin of the narcissus flower, which appeared to mark the spot where a beautiful boy died when he became utterly consumed by his own greatness. The story of Narcissus is instructive for modern workers when we struggle to accept coaching and criticism.

While hunting one day, Narcissus bent to take a drink from a pool of clear water and saw his own reflection. He became so enamored with himself that he remained by the pool gazing at the image. Without food or rest, he died and a narcissus flower appeared to mark the spot with a lasting beauty.

Do you believe your own publicity?

When we become captivated by our own greatness, we lose sight of our need to continue to learn. Consumed by arrogance, we defend our own perfections and ultimately fail to grow and progress, becoming ever less valuable to our organizations. Like Narcissus, we lose our color, vigor, and beauty. The following tips can help us as we strive to remain changeable throughout our careers:

• Recognize that an openness to new ideas demonstrates confidence.

• Find the right balance between confidence and arrogance.

• Understand that a successful career (and life) requires that we always grow and change.

Openness demonstrates confidence

Our willingness to accept and implement feedback enlarges who we are and increases what we can do for others. Without it, we’ll find our careers stuck by the side of the proverbial pool of water while we sit idly admiring ourselves as the world rushes by. Numerous academic and psychological studies have confirmed the link between an openness to new experiences and the confidence we need to foster a healthy self-esteem. Interestingly, confidence is a clear predictor of academic and career success. As my boss recently put it, “When you’re comfortable in your own skin, you acknowledge what you don’t know, which opens a door for help.”

Find the balance between confidence and arrogance

At what point does confidence tip over into arrogance? While they share a belief in one’s own abilities, I believe the defining quality of confidence is a willingness to accept feedback and act on the suggestions we receive. In contrast, arrogance is defined by a prideful, self-absorption that requires us to cling to an old vision of who we are while closing ourselves off to the impact of others. Because it blocks progress, arrogance is especially harmful in the following situations:

• When we’re new to a career, role, or company

• When we’ve been asked to tackle a project we haven’t had responsibility for in the past

• When we want to move up to the next level in our career

• Anytime we’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed at work

Confidence is necessary to motivate ourselves and to position us to receive opportunities. However, when confidence becomes arrogance, it morphs into a flame that will consume us, much like self-admiration cost Narcissus his life.

You’re always growing

A few years ago, a young woman who worked for me began to clearly resent project feedback over time. During the course of one conversation regarding an image she had created, she refused to make alterations that would more clearly present the elements as a step-by-step process, preferring to randomly scatter them throughout the graphic. While attempting to reason with her by explaining why I recommended the change, her chin stuck out, she crossed her arms, and she refused to make the change. I invited her to take a day or two to consider how a change might help her communicate her primary message and then to return to discuss it with me. Rather than doing so, she simply delayed completion of the task indefinitely. Because she could not complete the task in exactly the way she wanted, she was unwilling to do it at all.

As I’ve reflected on this experience, I feel sad that her need to be right inhibited her ability to do her job well. She was a new college graduate with limited work experience, and as a student, she had excelled. I believe she was not adequately prepared during her academic background for entering a career where she would need to be able to work with others, compromise, and implement changes to her work products when asked. 

It’s important for all of us to recognize that change is an essential component of growth and progression. If we refuse to accept new information, see different perspectives, and implement improvements recommended by others, we will remain stuck in one place until we too lose our color, vigor, and beauty. Ultimately, our career will die beside the pool of self-admiration.

What’s the Narcissus Principle?

If you find your career at a standstill, examine yourself to see if you’ve been open to the feedback you receive from colleagues and bosses. If not, it’s time to stop admiring your reflection and step away from the pool, enabling you to learn and grow into the next step of your career. 

Promotion and advancement are not awarded by merely warming a seat for a set number of years. Rather, we will receive opportunities as we demonstrate our ability to learn new skills and take on new challenges. Our careers grow as we increase our ability to bring value to our employers. Doing so requires that we let go of arrogance and invite others to provide feedback about our weaknesses. Once identified, our hard work can turn today’s imperfections into tomorrow’s strengths. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Believe in yourself. Our strength grows out of our weakness.” Openness, an appropriate level of confidence, and an understanding of our need to always be learning will create interesting chances for us to grow throughout our lives and careers. 

Christina Robbins is Vice President of Communication Strategy and Marketing at Digitech Systems LLC, one of the most trusted choices for intelligent information management and business process automation worldwide. Celebrated by industry analysts and insiders as the best enterprise content management and workflow solutions on the market, Digitech Systems has an unsurpassed legacy of accelerating business performance by streamlining digital processes for organizations of any size. For more information visit