In almost any profession selecting a good mentor or advisor is a critical component of career success. But who you choose as a mentor makes a big difference.
A new study using contestants from NBC's singing competition, The Voice, examines how people choose advisors. It also explains why people who worked for a demanding boss like Steve Jobs wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Here's the bottom line:
People in almost any profession say they look for advisors who have the most experience or expertise in a given area. In reality, however, most people choose an advisor who flatters them and makes them feel good. The result is a decline in performance.
How Most People Select Mentors
The "Unexpected Power of Positivity" was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Three researchers from Carnegie Mellon, NYU and the University of Toronto were involved in six related experiments.
One clever experiment followed participants who applied to be contestants on The Voice.
The researchers studied singers from the first four seasons of the popular show when the judges were the same and none had established a solid enough track record to skew the opinions of the contestants. Country singer Blake Shelton is the only judge/coach from the original cast who remains today.
Before the show, contestants said their number one criteria in selecting a coach is how much expertise and experience they have in the artists' chosen genre. However, when it came time to decide, "Artists were more likely to select a coach as their advisor who expressed more positivity toward them."
Find Mentors That Make You Better
The findings apply beyond a singing competition. Researchers replicated the study among hundreds of business professionals across different fields.
We all like to be liked. That means we seek often seek advice from people who say positive things about us. There's nothing wrong with that because if you feel good about yourself, you'll grow in confidence.
But while positive advisors make you feel better, they not help you get better.
While I was studying the research paper, I thought about a conversation with former Apple Mac evangelist, Guy Kawasaki. He told me that Steve Jobs was the most demanding boss he'd ever had--and the best one he'd ever had.
"Jobs demanded excellence. You had to prove yourself every day. He kept you at the top of your game," Kawasaki told me.
Kawasaki says he wouldn't be who is today if had not been for Steve Jobs. Jobs drove Kawasaki and others to do the best work of their careers and, more importantly, helped them realize that they were capable of more than they ever imagined.
In my career as a CEO communication coach, I've noticed that leaders who reach the C-suite don't want to hear me praise them as much as they want to learn how to improve.
While I don't give insincere praise, I do highlight people's strengths. Most people love to hear it, but when I get to the CEO's office, something changes--and it's quite dramatic. Sometimes, even before I begin talking, they'll say:
"I don't want to hear what I'm doing right. Tell me what I'm doing wrong."
Top leaders have a reaction that is in stark contrast to the majority of business professionals who either don't want to hear about areas for improvement or get defensive when their weaknesses are pointed out.
We all need a cheerleader in our life, but balance the positivity with advisors, mentors or trusted peers who know what you're capable of--people who will flatter less and demand more from you.