How to Ask for the Feedback You Really Need

When we ask for feedback on our work, we often get poor-quality feedback that’s not useful or that makes us feel attacked or defensive. Part of the reason is in how we’re asking for feedback. Most requests are too generic, too open, and too late. The result is that you’re more likely to get a heap of opinion rather than a helping of insight. Instead of saying, “I’d love it if you could provide some feedback,” try setting the other person up to add more value by being more prescriptive about what you’re looking for. This article discusses a three step process for getting more constructive feedback that supports your growth, strengthens your relationships, and accelerates your career.

You’ve probably heard of “the gift of feedback,” but have you ever actually received it? When delivered well, the gift of feedback is candor, and it comes when someone exposes how your behavior affected their own thoughts and feelings — for example, “When you spoke over me, I felt like my perspective wasn’t valued.”

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that what you’re receiving is decidedly less valuable (or appealing) than a gift. Instead, what your manager or colleagues pass off as feedback is probably a vague or subjective description of what was good or bad about your behavior, with little or no insight into their subjective thoughts and feelings — “You were rude and interrupted me.” That’s not helpful.

Part of why you get poor-quality feedback is how you ask for it. Most requests for feedback are too generic, too open, and too late. The result is that you’re more likely to get a heap of opinion rather than a helping of insight.

A Three Step Process for Asking for Feedback

Instead of saying, “I’d love it if you could provide some feedback,” try setting the other person up to add more value by being more prescriptive about what you’re looking for. Use this three step process, particularly when it comes to setting and achieving your own career goals:

Step 1: Choose one area of personal development per quarter.

Each quarter, reflect on your performance objectives, skills, and ambitions and choose one area that you want to work on. This development goal should be central to what you need to achieve in your role so that you’re motivated to improve, and so others are keen to help. For example, you might focus on thinking more strategically, being a better team player, or enhancing your executive presence. Discuss this choice with your manager and any other trusted colleagues or mentors who would have insight into the greatest opportunities for your growth. With their input, settle on your development focus.

Step 2: Home in on a specific target skill or behavior within your chosen development area.

Once you have the general area you’d like to work on, select a specific skill or behavior for the short term. For example, if you’re working on being more strategic, you might choose to reference your industry competitors more often. Alternatively, if your goal is to be a better team player, you could work on paraphrasing your colleagues ideas and then building your ideas off of theirs. Again, people who know you well or have opportunities to see you in action will have valuable ideas about what areas would be most beneficial for you to work on. Once you’ve decided on your specific target area, that becomes the core of your feedback request.

Step 3: Ask someone to observe you working on your new skill or behavior and share what they thought or felt immediately afterward.

Shape your request in a way that increases the likelihood that you’ll get useful feedback. Remember, you want the person to tell you the subjective impact of your behavior (e.g., when your presentation didn’t include a SWOT analysis, I lacked context to understand your strategy), not judgment about what they think is “good” or “bad” (e.g., your presentation was too internally focused). Structure your request as follows: start with your development focus, then specify the target area you’re working on. Note when the other person might have an opportunity to observe your behavior in action and ask for them to share the impact of your behavior on what they thought or felt. In our example about being more strategic, you might ask, “I’m working on being more strategic and, specifically, focusing on our competitive positioning. In our meeting tomorrow, could you note how the competitors I reference impact your perception of me as being more strategic or not?”

In a nutshell, the process looks like this: development focus, target area, observation opportunity, impact assessment.

Let’s use the good team player goal to create a second example. You might ask, “I’m working on being a better team player and specifically on building upon others’ ideas. At the offsite next week, could you watch for examples of how and when I contribute and let me know how my choices land in terms of being a good team player or not?”

Now, you’ve set both yourself and the person giving feedback up for a more constructive interaction.

Why Targeted Feedback Requests Work

There are several reasons why a targeted ask is superior to a generic request for feedback.

Most post hoc requests for feedback rely on the person to recall from memory how you behaved and how they reacted, but memory is fallible and highly susceptible to biases. Even without intentional bias, the other person’s recollections might be vague, and their impressions of what they thought or felt in response to your behavior are likely to be reconstructions. When you ask for feedback in advance and specify the behaviors you’d like the person to reflect on, the feedback giver knows what to look for and can pay attention, take notes, and be better prepared to provide specific and objective information about what you did, with more insightful reflections on how those choices affected them. Targeted feedback requests increase the validity of the data.

When you ask for feedback without setting boundaries, you give the other person free rein to choose any domain that’s salient to them. If you ask for feedback about your presentation, you might hear anything from the questionable quality of evidence to the preposterousness of using a purple Pantone. When you’re specific about what you’re working on and what valuable perspective the other person might provide, you receive information that’s timely and pertinent to what you’re actively working to improve. From a learning perspective, this provides more relevant insights that you can apply immediately. The alternative is opening yourself up to irrelevant feedback that distracts from your focus, or relevant but premature instruction that comes too soon for you to put it into action.

A common problem with most generic feedback is that it comes without warning, or from a direction you aren’t expecting. The result is that it can feel confrontational, adversarial, and even unsafe. That’s more likely to trigger your defensiveness and shut down learning rather than fostering openness and a growth mindset. When you exert some control over the topic of the feedback, you can be mentally prepared to hear a negative or uncomfortable message that would otherwise be off-putting or upsetting. Because it’s an area you’re working on and paying attention to, it’s possible that you’ve already realized what they’re going to tell you — you might have even assessed yourself more harshly than they will. The point is that you’ve enlisted help, and your counterpart is delivering feedback as an ally who is invested in your development rather than an adversary who is trying to tear you down. Targeted feedback requests bolster psychological safety.

Creating a Virtuous Cycle

As you make significant progress in one target area, move to the next area within the same development focus. For example, you can evolve your strategic thinking from studying your current competitors to learning from other industries. Each time, take the feedback, reflect on what you’ve learned, make new choices, and then move on to the next target area. After two or three months of dedicated effort on one developmental focus, you’re ready to move on to another domain.

To select your next quarterly development focus, revisit your past performance reviews and your current developmental plan to identify areas that might be important for you to work on. Take your shortlist and ask for input from others. Remember, you’re not asking for feedback yet; you’re not ready to ask for it in a way that will be helpful. Instead, solicit ideas about what your colleagues or manager think might be the next development area for you to begin working on. This is their opportunity to help you see any blind spots. Yet, it does so in a way that’s safe and manageable because you retain control. Repeat the process so that your manager and colleagues always know how they can contribute constructively to your development.

As organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich taught us, we’re not as self-aware as we think.  The best remedy is to ask for feedback that helps you understand the impact of your behavior on others. If you frame your request properly, what you get in return is likely to be a gift of candor that supports your growth, strengthens your relationships, and accelerates your career.

Developing employees, Feedback, Digital Article

Liane Davey
Liane Davey is a team effectiveness advisor and professional speaker. She is the author of The Good Fight, You First, and co-author of Leadership Solutions. Share your comments and questions with her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.

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