What To Do When You Get Confusing Feedback About a Career Decision

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When Career Decision Feedback is Confusing

Have you ever had to make a tough decision about your career and reached out to your network for perspective? Was the feedback clarifying or confusing? Or possibly both?

If you're anything like most of the people I coach, conversations with your network can be incredibly helpful. By saying the things you've been thinking out loud to someone else and having them reflect your ideas back to you, maybe with a few insightful questions thrown into the mix, what had been a confusing jumble of thoughts can suddenly seem to make sense.

Paths and choices become clearer.

I almost always encourage clients making major career (or life) decisions to reach out to their networks for perspective. I recently wrote a post about it. You can potentially save yourself time, effort and maybe even a little heartache by reaching out to people who are a step ahead of you on the career path you think you might want to take.


Seek perspective, get opinions

Despite the many benefits of reaching out to your network for perspective when you need to make a consequential career decision, the feedback you might receive isn't always clarifying. It usually is, but there are times when it can be downright confusing.

Be careful what you wish for, right?

If the feedback turns out to be confusing — let's say it runs counter to the general sense you've been getting from others, or it just doesn't feel right — you need to step back and ask yourself why that might be the case.

To be fair, sometimes the feedback you receive related to a career decision can be confusing because it (correctly) counters a false understanding or a bias you might have. In those cases, you'll likely end up being grateful for the momentary confusion. After all, the confusion might prompt you to change your mind. And changing your mind could be a critical first step in avoiding a serious career misstep.

But what if the feedback that's causing the confusion isn't correcting a misunderstanding or countering a bias?

What if it's just an opinion?


Learn to spot a career opinion

So how do you recognize a career-related opinion when you're on the receiving end of one?

If the person you're getting the feedback from is more experienced than you are, then what they say, opinion or not, can seem like fact. At some point in our lives or careers, we've all probably had a teacher, mentor, hero or idol say something to us directly or generally to the masses and we've assumed that it's a fact and is applicable to us personally.

There's no shortage of career advice to be had, this blog included. I'd venture to say that unless the career-related perspective you're receiving is based on peer-reviewed research, the counsel, tip, advice (or whatever you're going to call it) is going to be based on the personal experience of the person who's providing it.

And what's the tell-tale sign?

The opinion is often preceded by "I think" or "You should" or both of those combined for the double-whammy of "I think you should..." Fill in whatever sage advice you like after that weighty opening.

"I think you need to" is also a good one.

Don't get me wrong. A statement that begins with "I think you should" or "You need to" could potentially provide the best insight you've ever received (or ever will receive) related to your career. It might also be the worst and could lead to feelings of inadequacy or failure, whether you follow through on it or not.

You could end up thinking to yourself: If my teacher/mentor/hero/idol said I should do this thing and I don't, then am I failing to live up to my potential?

Before you go down that road, you have to ask yourself a key question about that "I think you should" and the person who delivered it: Does that person balance their equation like you do?

Balance their equation?



 Each person realizes their full potential, whatever that may be, and maximizes their career satisfaction by carefully balancing an equation. That equation may contain multiple factors like title, scale, impact, compensation, lifestyle and location.



Understand how you balance your equation

The idea of 'balancing your equation' came up in a recent coaching session I had the good fortune to lead. A mid-level corporate executive I was working with was getting a lot of well-intended "you shoulds" from her colleagues. They had reasonably strong opinions about the roles and responsibilities that she should be pursuing at this point in her career. Those roles were, of course, higher up, at a larger scale, more demanding, and in the not-so-attractive (to her) location of the company's HQ.

As I mentioned before, the "you shoulds" she was receiving could be some of the best career advice she had ever gotten. The only problem was that she knew the "you shoulds" weren't good advice. She knew it at a very deep level. She looked up at those roles and that location and didn't feel inspired. She felt uneasy. But despite those uneasy feelings, the well-intended "you shoulds" still made her feel like she wasn't living up to her full potential.

As we talked through it, it became clear that what she ultimately saw as her 'full potential' was likely quite different than the 'full potential' that her colleagues had projected onto her. They would be willing to make the trade-offs in terms of lifestyle and location for those higher-level roles in their big company.

She wouldn't be.


And do it your own way

We came to the conclusion that each person realizes their full potential, whatever that may be, and maximizes their career satisfaction by carefully balancing an equation. That equation may contain multiple factors like title, scale, impact, compensation, lifestyle and location. It may take some time — or even an entire career — to identify the relevant factors to incorporate into that equation and then to balance them in order to achieve full potential and career satisfaction.

But in the end — each person has their own unique equation for career success and satisfaction that they need to formulate and maximize for themselves.




So when you reach out to your network for perspective on a big career decision and you start hearing a bunch of "you shoulds" — you should probably ask yourself how similar your personal equation for career satisfaction might be to the person providing their well-intended opinion.

Do they value what you do when it comes to work and life, and in the same proportions?

If they do, then maybe you give their career-related opinions a little extra weight. If not, then maybe you should move in a different direction. The direction you probably know is the right one in your heart.


If you're not sure what your personal equation for career satisfaction is, then consider coaching. In just a few weeks, you could be on the path maximizing your career satisfaction and achieving your full potential, whatever that may be.


Doug Lester is a career strategist and executive coach who has helped over a thousand people craft their work-life narratives and advance meaningful careers. A former Fortune 100 marketing executive and recruiter at a top 20 executive search firm, he is the founder of Career Narratives and has been on the coaching staff at the Harvard Business School for over 10 years. He also leads an executive coaching program for the corporate strategy group of a Fortune 100 company in Boston.

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