How To Ask For Feedback (And What Not To Do When You Get It)

Let’s face it. We all need feedback. Otherwise we have no choice but to guess and make assumptions about how we are seen by our colleagues, and about whether we are meeting their expectations. It’s unwise to adopt the mantra of “No news is good news”! If you have one of those managers who takes the view that they will only say something if they have to (perhaps electing not to say anything until the annual performance review), you’re unlucky. But a lack of explicit focus by others on your development does not give you a free pass in the context of feedback. Unless, of course, you just want to coast and take your chances. In practice, if you want to be better at your job, you owe it to yourself to be accountable to yourself for the skills and experience you develop. And to get better, you need feedback. Everyone does.

But, here’s the thing with feedback. More often than not, it’s mixed. You have to be prepared to hear that you have areas in which you could improve. Your overall goals will be best served if you are open to what you can learn from it. Whatever you do, don’t let your defense mechanisms kick in. It’s easy to see feedback as evaluative and it can be truly uncomfortable if you hear that you have not performed as well as you had hoped (believed?). Nonetheless, if you take feedback badly, it discourages others from caring about your development. If you want to improve, you need to know where your blind spots are – where you could do better and, importantly, understand how! So, if you are ready to have a go and ask for developmental feedback, here are some tips…

Know What a Real Feedback Conversation Isn’t

For a start, developmental feedback is neither praise, nor for that matter criticism. The feedback you need tells you what you have done well and what you could have done differently (and how you should have done it). If you are committed to developing your skills set, this is the kind of feedback you want. While praise – such as “you did a nice job on that presentation” – may be good to hear, it’s not accretive. It doesn’t build or develop your skills: it doesn’t give you any clue as to what you should do similarly the next time you give a presentation, or what you might consider doing differently. What you are asking for is advice, not a rating.

Think About Timing

Like good comedy, successfully asking for feedback is about timing. There’s no good asking someone for feedback when they are preparing for a meeting, off to lunch or rushing to get out of the office. You get the picture. Set it up – give your colleague a heads up that you would like to ask their opinion. Having done that, you can come back at an agreed time when your colleague has had a chance to think and develop their thoughts. This all makes it more likely that you will have an appropriate setting for your conversation (ideally quiet, private, distraction-less).

Do the Heavy Lifting

Don’t make your colleague do all the work. Think about how you can make it easy for them to respond to your request. Do a quick self-assessment: What do you think you did well? What would you have liked to have done better? What are you unsure about? Focus your colleague’s mind and attention on what you most want to hear about. If you do that, you will open the door to a developmental conversation. Think about which feedback topic would give you most bang for your buck and start there. This brings you to the ask…

Know How to Ask

Avoid generic requests such as “How did I do?” or “Could you give me some feedback?” Be sure to ask in such a way that both gives your colleague an opening and alleviates any concern they might have about giving you candid feedback. Explain briefly what you would like feedback on and invite your colleague’s observations. For example: “I am working on [name the issue/aspect] – I would really appreciate hearing from you how I did in that context. Please be candid. I would like to make sure that I do the best I can do. Please don’t spare my feelings.” You will find your own words but the point is, the way you ask creates the context for the whole conversation. You can both put your colleague at ease (which is likely to lead to a more productive conversation) and focus their attention on what matters most.

Don’t Get Defensive. And Listen.

Nothing will undermine your future ability to ask for (and get) feedback from someone than appearing to them to be defensive, angry or resistant when they give you feedback. Listen actively to what your colleague is saying. Take notes. Resist any temptation you have to leap to your own defense. Listen and reflect on what is said.

Don’t Explain. Don’t Argue.

Unless asked to explain why you chose a particular course of action, don’t start explaining away. You don’t want to be that person. Remember that if someone does give you feedback that you don’t like (and you genuinely do not think it is legitimate) you don’t ultimately have to apply it (although see Use It Or Lose It below). Either way, you are in control so there’s no point in getting defensive and arguing about it. You are aiming to create a developmental feedback conversation focused on how you could be better – this is not a performance evaluation of how you did, the purpose of which is to rate you. If you have asked for feedback and got it, do not push back.

Ask Questions

That said, if you truly don’t understand the feedback you receive, clarify. Ask questions. Probe. Be sure that you understand why your colleague is saying what they are saying. Ask for a specific example of something you have done (or not done) that illustrates what they are saying. Be sure to ask in a constructive way.

Express Gratitude

Be grateful: Thank your colleague for the feedback. Assure them that you will think about what they said and ask if you could come back to them with any additional questions you might have. If the feedback resonates with you, acknowledge that to your colleague and be clear that you plan to implement the feedback.

Use It Or Lose It

When someone does give you feedback, you need to think in terms of “use it or lose it”. What do I mean? Imagine that someone has taken the time to share their observations on your performance. If you are not responsive to that feedback, it is less likely that he or she will trouble themselves to give you feedback another time. Think of it from their perspective. It takes time and energy to give a colleague feedback – for some, it’s not a highly-developed skill and it takes them out of their comfort zone, especially if they are concerned that you may experience the feedback as negative.

End Positively

If you intend to implement the feedback the next time you work with them or on a similar assignment, assure them that’s your intention. Make a plan for how you intend to apply it (perhaps with the colleague giving you the feedback). Take the necessary action to do, or stop doing, the specific behavior identified. Where necessary, ask for support.

Express Gratitude (Again!)

When the conversation is all over, say thanks. Again.

Feedback: A Formula For Success

Let’s be positive and assume that after all this, you receive reasonable and actionable feedback that you want to incorporate into your work. Overall, the formula is:

ASK + IMPLEMENT + REPEAT.

As you become more skilled in asking for and implementing feedback – yes, it is a learnable skill – you can even ask your critics (but see below!).

In any event, seek feedback regularly – adjust course as necessary and ensure that those who gave you specific feedback know that you have taken it on board, either by demonstrating it to them in the work you do with them or by making sure that you go back and tell them what a difference their feedback made to a specific project and thanking them again for their feedback.

P.S. Don’t Drop Anyone

Last month, my eye was caught by a Harvard Business Review article entitled We Drop People Who Give Us Critical Feedback featuring new research by Francesca Gino and Paul Green both of Harvard and Brad Staats of UNC at Chapel Hill. Gino confirmed that when we receive negative feedback (that is more negative than our view of ourselves), many of us prefer to drop the colleague who gives it to us. Of course, we can only drop a colleague where the relationship is discretionary but you get the point. Rather than heed their advice, we will stop interacting with them altogether, if we can get away with it.

Gino says: “The message is clear: If you are serious about improving at work, then you should be sure to develop and nurture relationships with people who are willing to give you that tough feedback.”

Good luck!