Feedback at work doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
For people who can appreciate feedback, and what it can mean for your career (the opportunity to see yourself from the outside, and make improvements), see it as one of the best parts of completing a project. But for a lot of people, especially overachievers, criticism is the thing they dread most.
To achieve everything you are capable of, though, it is imperative you are able to see your blind spots and take the steps necessary to overcome them (this is the purpose behind 360 reviews) – and so soliciting and accepting feedback well is an important skill to develop.
Giving feedback sucks for the giver too!
The thing is giving feedback is actually really hard. You never know how the person is going to react; and if they are a great teammate or friend you definitely don’t want to dishearten them or cause any pain (after all who *wants* to hurt someone’s feelings?).
And the fear or uncertainty about a person’s reaction prevents many people from offering feedback unless it is necessary; such as when bad behavior has become so disruptive there is no choice.
I know when I first became a manager this was really hard for me. I had to balance the responsibility to help other improve with my desire to not rock the boat and be liked by my teammates. Of course I have since learned to deliver feedback better and think that giving critical feedback is one of my strengths — but I had to develop that talent and not all managers do.
So what does this mean for you? Well, 2 things:
- Know that those around you may not *offer* feedback on your performance. So if you want to know how to improve you have to ask.
- If someone does give you feedback it is critical that you make an effort to take it well. This ensures that the person will continue to give you this useful information.
The key to getting feedback is asking the right questions.
In order to get really useful feedback you must have a plan. This means being thoughtful about who you ask to evaluate you, and the questions you ask them.
Selecting the right people.
Many people rely solely on their boss or direct manager for information on how they are doing or how they could be better. And these people are missing out! There are tons of great sources for useful tips and information throughout your whole team. Thinking about the people you interact with (in person, or even just over email) all can offer insights on ways you could improve. So, think about the people in your team, or even outside your team, that have interacted with you in a meaningful way — each of those people have a perspective on your performance and output, but you have to ask the right questions to get them to share.
Ask good questions.
Since giving feedback is hard in general, asking questions like “How am I doing?” make giving feedback even harder. These broad general questions encompass so many things that a person may have difficulty coming up with something meaningful. However, very specific questions are easy for almost anyone to answer.
For an example, here are some questions to consider:
- What would make this email/report/other written communication easier to understand or read?
- Did I communicate enough information or too much?
- How could I have done a better job leading the meeting?
- We missed our deadline, how could I have helped more?
And if you ask someone to check your work with a code review, or give feedback on technical design, or even copy editing a document, try to pick up patterns or overarching lessons and methods from their comments to apply to the future.
So to collect feedback first select people you have had enough interactions with and come up with some specific questions you can ask ahead of the meeting. Meet with them in private (since you never you know what they are going to say) and be sure to pay attention and take whatever they say well using the tips below.
Taking feedback like a champ
So how can you make feedback your friend? By controlling how you receive it and what you do with it. When you take charge of your situation, you decide how the conversation goes and what happens next. It’s all staying calm, staying confident, and making the most of it.
It’s completely natural to feel on edge when you’re going in for feedback. A lot of people sit down feeling tense and on edge before the meeting even begins, which doesn’t bode well for things once the actual critique begins. Take deep breaths and remember – a good friend/boss/co-worker offers feedback not because they want to humiliate you, but because they want you to succeed. Someone taking the time to give you honest feedback is a good thing; it means they take you seriously and believe in your potential. And if it helps, take notes! This shows the person you care about what they have to say, but can also give you something to focus on if you start to get upset.
Have A Plan.
Decide before you go in – “I’m going to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the meeting.” Knowing what you’re going to say will help you feel less flustered in the moment. Don’t pre-plan arguments. Go into the meeting with the intention of absorbing information…only.
Ask For Clarification, and Think About It.
Asking for clarification is a great way to get your balance during a rough critique. It can be a lot of information to process all at once when you’re getting a review, and it’s even harder to process that information when you’re ego is feeling bruised. So ask a question, or request specific examples. Not only will this give you a better look at the situation from their perspective, but gives you some time to absorb everything.
My two favorite questions (which I find very helpful):
- “How would you have done it differently?”
- “What is an example of someone who has done this well? What did they do?” (because then you can follow-up with that person)
Think About It Some More.
Don’t interrupt; don’t get angry. When we hear that someone doesn’t like our work, it’s easy to get worked up fast. Give yourself a chance to think before you respond, and remember that this person might have a point. ALso, most of the time, people aren’t looking for an explanation or justification – and in many cases they may already know (or if they don’t they will surely ask for it) – so just listen and accept it. Raising your voice and having a comeback for everything only makes you look arrogant, difficult, and immature. When in doubt, don’t elaborate, just thank the person for their time and consideration.
Consider The Source.
A common reaction – especially among younger professionals who don’t have much work experience – is that any feedback from anyone in a higher position must be accurate and must be acted on. It doesn’t. If this person doesn’t know your project or just wants to hear themselves talk, you are allowed to accept their critique with a simple “thank you” and leave it there.
But Be Open-Minded, Too.
Being defensive in a feedback session is completely counterproductive. Not that you should let someone steamroll over you, but take the position that you are there to listen, not speak. Let your critic finish their thoughts before you start explaining why they don’t get it. And while you’re at it, try to avoid explaining why they don’t get it too. Just remember that when we are wrong, it doesn’t feel any different from being right; so make sure that you are really looking at the situation from all sides. [There is a great TED talk on this topic about how we handle people who disagree with us by making 3 assumptions about them - that they are ignorant, idiots, or out to get you. So make sure you aren’t falling victim to these traps.]
And remember – bosses, project managers, team leaders, and peers are just people too; so keep in mind:
It’s Not Just What They’re Saying.
It’s how they’re saying it too. Take into consideration the demeanor of the person speaking – are they giving you earnest critique or are they gloating? Are they offering a carefully considered list of improvements, or are they making it up as they go along? Even if your critic isn’t your best friend in the office, if they are taking the time to give you honest, constructive feedback – give them your attention.
Honest critique is one of the best ways to improve your job performance, so be open to it and really listen when it’s offered. You don’t have to take every piece of advice someone hands you, but remember that you can’t see yourself from the outside and this other person might just have some insight that could be helpful to you.
How can you apply this to your work?
Here are some ideas and exercises to help you become better at getting and soliciting feedback.
- Come up with a list of 5 specific projects or work items that you spent a significant amount of time on. Based on this list try to create a second list of the facets of the projects that could be improved in some way (such as: quality, timeliness, communication, teamwork, output). How could you ask questions about each of those facets? Can you make them more specific? Who would be able to answer them?
- Make a list of the most important or successful people in your organization. Can any of them give you feedback on your performance or projects? If not, try to meet one of them over lunch or coffee and ask them questions about what makes them successful (to get you started check out this list of questions for mentors).
- Write out a list of specific questions you could ask your direct manager on your job performance. Try to come up with at least 5 and then choose one of them to ask in your next meeting.
- The next time someone gives you feedback or criticism, don’t say anything in response. Just listen to them and try only responding with a question (or multiple questions), then say thank you. Afterward take the time to assess how the interaction went over. Was it better or worse? Why?
- Next time you feel the urge to jump into a conversation or discussion, or when someone has given you feedback, take note of your physiological reactions. Does your heart rate increase? How do your hands and breath feel? Try to notice your bio-feedback so in the future you can learn to control those impulses (this also works well for changing habits too as well as interactions).
- Give someone feedback (a co-worker, friend, or spouse). Start with a question like “Are you open to feedback?” so they can mentally prepare for what you are about to say. After you give them feedback assess how you felt about it. How did you feel right before you told them? Were you nervous? Why or why not? How did they react? If they don’t react well, don’t worry – this exercise is for you, not them – let them explain and then let it go; there is no need to prove a point.
Being welcoming to feedback is essential for personal and professional growth and hopefully these exercises will help you take it to the next level!
Other ideas or suggestions? How do you deal with negative feedback?
Do you have any other suggestions and ideas to improve your ability to request and take criticism?