Billy Boland: Why criticism can be helpful

billy_bolandWhen we formed our Self Managed Learning (SML) group at the NHS Leadership Academy, I made it clear to the others that I wanted them to push me and be critical friends. A year can fly by and we’re scheduled to meet only six times. Groups can take a while to settle down, and I didn’t want to miss out on any learning by being polite. I hoped to hear the things that others who know me better wouldn’t say. I wanted to be orientated to my blind spots. The safety and confidentiality of the group were what would make it OK. Or so I thought.

On our second meeting, I presented a piece of my work and waited for feedback. In addition to doing our own assignments we have to read and give detailed analysis on each other’s work. This “self-managed learning” process had sounded like a bit of a lark when I first heard about it. Theoretically, each group sets its own standard of pass and fail, so success is realised through the opinion of your colleagues. I naively thought that the outcome would be obvious. We were all there to pass, so surely we’d be voting each other through, right?

Starting the day with a 40 minute critique of why your submission doesn’t make the grade? Well, it’s no way to start a Friday. I sat nodding at what they were saying, feeling they were wrong, but knowing they were right. I’m not used to people telling me what I’ve done isn’t good enough.

Thankfully we moved onto the next person, as I seethed quietly, berating the lack of an objective standard, the limited guidance about what had been expected of us, and other imperfections I thought had contributed to my plight. Yet as the day wore on it dawned on me. While the assignment and rules of engagement could have been clearer, there is no objective standard when it comes to leadership. There’s no road map or formula for quick wins. Good leaders get on with leading in uncertain times. They figure out what needs doing, come up with a way forward, and take people with them. And they don’t make excuses when things don’t go their way.

The academy subsequently made new resources available, intended to give more clarity for those who were resubmitting. I made significant revisions in line with the feedback colleagues had given, and was guided by the new materials. On the morning of our third SML, we were told that if the group told us we didn’t make the grade at this meeting, we could be failed, and must leave the course. I was taken aback, and we spent some time discussing how we would respond to this as a group.

But this time I didn’t sit back and glaze over—I was learning. After a bit of discussion, I was able to re-frame the situation as a challenge to be addressed. I could choose how I was going to respond, and there were a number of options available to me. Though bruising, the ritual of honest feedback and resubmission has helped me develop. And although the process wasn’t perfect, I’ve been able to squeeze out some good learning about myself, and how to deal with uncertainty from the experience.

So this is it. We’re on. I’m getting somewhere.

I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.

Billy Boland is a consultant psychiatrist and lead doctor in safeguarding adults at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust.