Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Asking for Feedback at Work: From Disappointing to Insightful

Receiving feedback is important.

When we receive feedback at work, we’re more engaged, less likely to leave our jobs, and feel more valued and appreciated. It can also strengthen our sense of belonging because it opens the door to more meaningful work relationships with others.

And then, of course, there’s the growth that comes from receiving feedback. Both when our strengths and useful approaches are validated by positive feedback. And when we uncover blind spots or get advice for things we’re not that great at (yet).

And even for the company feedback is just good business. In their article „Feedback and organizations“ researchers Baker and colleagues summarise that:

  • „a company that makes effective use of feedback practices have a greater competitive advantage“
  • feedback „binds organisational goals with continuity and fluidity, boosts creativity, propels trust, and drives motivation in individuals“
  • and it „aligns performance with the overall objectives and missions of the organisation“.

Not everyone knows how to give great feedback.

And even fewer people are curious about how they can ask for it.

A short look into Google Trends shows an increasing interest over the past two decades in the search term „give feedback“. Compared to that, the searches for „receive feedback“ and „ask for feedback“ are small in numbers.

My interpretation of these graphs is that despite the hundreds of instructions and how-to manuals on giving feedback, we still don’t know how to do it. And that the feedback employees receive isn’t useful.

But the graph also tells me that we’re more interested in giving feedback than asking for it. Aren’t we interested to hear how we’re doing?

I think it’s time we explore a bit more how we can tease out useful feedback from others. Because hoping people will just tell us – or tell us in a way that is useful – isn’t effective.

I’ve had my fair share of „(not) receiving useful feedback“ in my career.

Example 1: Unsolicited ‚feedback‘ that’s neither about me nor helpful.

“This isn’t gonna be pretty!” he said. I stopped breathing immediately.

He had said he wanted to give me feedback. And then he went on a rant about how I created a problem for him during a workshop I had facilitated … I was shocked!

Shocked because:

(1) He was a senior manager in the company. I thought with all the leadership training he’d been through by now he knows how to deliver feedback that doesn’t leave you feeling kicked in the gut.

And (2) He was a senior manager in the company. Why didn’t he say something during the workshop? Ask to revisit the action plan? Tell me to slow down?

I’m still confused and needless to say that this conversation eroded trust and made me feel very unsafe with him.

Example 2: When feedback is withheld, but people are still talking about you to others.

I’d been in my role for 3 years when by coincidence I found out that about one to two years earlier others described me as being „ineffective“.

They were probably right. I’d been doing a job I’d never done before in a role that never existed in this company. We were all finding our way.

But how can I improve, how can we all learn together, if we’re complaining to each other behind our backs? The more courageous thing to do is to go up to your colleagues and tell them what you think of their performance. The kinder thing to do is speak to them with compassion and a willingness to support them to improve.

Again, my trust was shattered. „Who else is smiling to my face and then secretly sending „rolling eyes emojis“ to others while I talk?

Example 3: Feedback that helped me grow dramatically.

To counter the two previous examples, I’ve also had a number of situations were receiving feedback from others helped me grow and make big leaps forward in my development. Some were quite literally life-changing.

I once asked the director of my department for feedback. How can I do a better job?  He considered the question to give me the one specific observation and advice that would make the biggest difference.

He said that while I was great at bringing concepts and theories and strategies, I now need to learn how to make those more actionable. How to add tactics to strategy. I was surprised and initially, my fixed mindset wanted me to feel bad about not being perfect.

But I sat with this information, looked for evidence of how it is true, and made a plan to develop this capability. In the year that followed, this single piece of valuable feedback helped me up-level my performance and effectiveness a lot.

I’m saying all this because I want you to ask more often for feedback.

And I want to give you the tools to elicit feedback that’s useful.

The job search portal indeed lists a few good reasons why you should ask for feedback at work:

  • It helps you to improve your performance meet your goals.
  • Develops open, transparent dialogue and you build professional relationships.
  • May improve your chances of getting promoted because you show that you are willing to put in the effort to grow and advance.
  • Improves your ability to fix mistakes quickly as you better see areas for improvement and receive guidance about how to solve your workplace problems effectively and efficiently.
  • Gives you the opportunity to learn from colleagues […]  about workplace competencies, skills or processes.

Asking for and receiving feedback is a key source of motivation.

According to researchers, all humans strive to fulfil three basic psychological needs: autonomy, belonging, competence.

Putting yourself in the driver’s seat and proactively asking for feedback (you choose who you ask when about what) pays into your need for autonomy.

Receiving feedback from a person that cares about you and comes prepared for the conversation satisfies your need for belonging.

And the insight you gain and the growth you trigger through that feedback fulfil your need for competence.

The conversation will be even more motivating if you get a chance to share your own observation about your performance first, instead of just passively receiving feedback from others.

So go ask for feedback, often.

To make that feedback useful, let’s look at what you might want to consider when thinking about

  • who to ask for feedback
  • how to elicit useful feedback from them
  • how you can turn those insights into action.

Who should I ask for feedback?

The people you ask for feedback should be credible and knowledgeable. Asking someone for feedback on your communication skills when they themselves are tangled in misunderstandings and cause confusion won’t be very useful. And asking someone for feedback on your performance who hasn’t worked with you in the last six months won’t yield helpful insights either.

Ask people for feedback who you know to want to help you grow and develop, who had ample opportunity to „see you in action“, and who have credibility with you.

That being said, we’re not always actively asking for feedback. Determining what to do with that information is up to each of us.

Who You Should Listen To – And Who Not

Not every feedback needs to be taken to heart. Here’s a little matrix to help you decide what to do next:  

Feedback can be more or less positive or negative and more or less accurate and inaccurate.

  • Positive feedback is reinforcing. It’s when people told you what you did well, what was good about your performance or what you should continue doing.
  • Negative feedback is corrective. Here people ask you to change a behaviour, do more or less of something or even start or stop doing things.

Categorizing feedback as reinforcing or corrective is fairly straightforward. To assess whether the feedback is accurate or not, we have to leave our ego aside and ask ourselves “How might this be true?”. Getting a second and third opinion might also help to see how much of what you heard is perception or if there might be some truth to it. 

Whether positive or negative, the only feedback that matters is accurate feedback delivered by someone credible.

What to do with positive, inaccurate feedback:

It might be flattering at first, our ego and wish for a polished self-image scream loud to take this on. But deep down you may know that it won’t serve you. Be honest with yourself: Is this really true or have you benefited from lucky circumstances? It might be hard but ignore this feedback.

What to do with negative, inaccurate feedback:

To ignore this type of feedback is a relief. Don’t cling to it, even if your perfectionism, your tendency to please people and the high standards you hold yourself to tell you otherwise. This type of feedback says more about the person who gave it to you than your actual behaviour. Say “Thank you for sharing that.” and move on.

  „Most criticism is nothing but an unsolicited discharge of personal preference.“ 

Joshua Field-Millburn

Positive and accurate feedback is a cause for celebration.

Don’t try to minimise your success with false modesty. Be proud of yourself, enjoy that moment. Savouring these moments boosts your positive emotions which then help you think more creatively for further success.

Keep a ‘brag sheet’ of this kind of feedback for the next time you need a boost in self-confidence. You can also have a closer look at how you made that success possible: What strengths were at play? What strategies did you use? Which skills supported you? Being aware of these root causes of success helps you tap into them more consciously when the next challenge comes along.

Negative and accurate feedback is a perfect learning opportunity.

To seize it, make sure you listen, put your ego aside, don’t rationalise or blame anyone or anything else and don’t play it down (“This isn’t such a big deal.”). Use the conversation to discern if this feedback reveals a blind spot, a lack of understanding the other’s expectations towards you or if you literally did something wrong.

Here’s a chance for you to learn about yourself, develop new skills, try new approaches and build a relationship with the person giving you the feedback. It’s not easy to deliver these types of “bad news”, so honour the fact that they care enough about you to tell you. That they took the time and want to help you get better.

How to Ask For Feedback to Get Valuable Insights

If you want to receive feedback that’s truly useful for you, don’t ambush people with a request. Showing up at someone’s door asking them about your performance of the past twelve months will yield only superficial answers and put a lot of pressure on the person asking you. Give them time to prepare and think about it.

For example, you could send a meeting request one or even two weeks in advance. 30 minutes should be sufficient. The invitation could look like this:

Dear _________,

The year is coming to an end [I’m changing roles/ my performance review is coming up/ …] and I wanted to use this chance to actively ask for feedback. We’ve been working together [in this project/ relationship] and I value your insight and opnion.

I’m particularly interested in understanding the following:

(1) About my performance in my role as [title of your role]:

  • What has been going well, was effective and delivered value to you?
  • What was missing or needs improvement? What should  I do differently in the future?

(2) About me as a person:

  • What, in your opinion, are my greatest strengths and capabilities?
  • If I wanted to realise my full potential, what would you say should I work on?

Thank you so much for your support!

[Name]

There are a few things I’ve done intentionally in that invitation. First, I give them context so they know what part of the work they should think about. Second, I separate my performance or the things I do from who I am. This makes the feedback more nuanced and it’s more valuable to me as „who I am“ is transferable to any other job, whereas the „doing“ might not be. And lastly, for both elements, I ask for what’s good and what should be corrected. In the conversation, you can ask follow-up questions to make the feedback even more useful to you.

Explorative Follow-up Questions

These questions could launch you into a fishing expedition which is a great thing to do when you want to create a development plan for the next 2-3 years. What have I been doing well? How have you perceived my performance? What’s the greatest value I add to this team? Where have I fallen short of expectations? What should I work on? Which, in your opinion, are my greatest limitations?

Specifying Follow-up Questions

When asking for feedback on a specific topic, for example how you give presentations, the way you write emails, your interaction with senior management or colleagues, it’s useful to stretch and nuance the feedback you receive in the four „KISS categories“:

  • What’s good and should I keep doing?
  • What should I improve? In what way?
  • What’s missing, what should I start doing?
  • What’s irritating or unhelpful and I should stop doing?

Follow-up Questions to Determine Progress

This article suggests asking Yes / No or rating based questions to get more focused and determine progress.For example: “Have I show improvements in X?” or “Do you think I/we should take this course of action?”

You can also ask questions on a scale from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5. Sometimes there are so many suggestions for improvement that we get the impression that we’re doing poorly. Though it might just be that the other put a lot of thought and genuinely wants us to grow. A long list of „how to do better“ is much easier to take on and act on if overall we’re getting four of five stars.

This brings us to the last part: Asking for and listening to feedback is only the first step. But if you don’t act on these insights, you just waste everyone’s time.

Turning Insight Into Action: Acting on the Feedback You Asked For

1. Be open, curious and truly listen.

For feedback to be valuable and lead to positive change, it’s not just about what is said, but also that you’re open to receive it and not come with excuses, says Peter Bregman in HBR.

Any feedback is an insight. It’s easy to dismiss the feedback that stings, that we don’t want to hear, or that we disagree with. But this is not how we learn and grow—and ultimately do our best work.

What we need to do is put our ego aside as we listen even if we experience feelings of shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration… We might be tempted to explain, reason, or argue, but that will only have us running in circles. Instead, let’s be willing to explore how what we just heard might be true.

2. Ask for explanations.

A study has found that „explanation“ (why what you did or didn’t do was a problem and what the effects are) is the most important feature in feedback to trigger positive change. So instead of asking for advice immediately, first try to understand the consequences better.

3. Make a plan.

What will you do differently now? What do you commit to continue doing? Who’s support do you need? There’s hardly ever the need to change everything about yourself after receiving feedback. If you want to make meaningful progress though, here are a few questions you can answer for yourself to come up with a plan.

“You didn’t conduct yourself professionally in the meeting.”

  • What did I do that was considered unprofessional?
  • How has this affected others? What other problems might this cause?
  • What can I do differently next time?

“You’ve done OK in your presentation yesterday, but there’s still room for improvement.”

  • What have I learned went well and I keep doing?
  • What can I improve about my presentation? What specifically?
  • What might that look like?
  • What was missing that I can include next time?
  • What was too much or unhelpful? What will I stop?

“You seem to have put a lot of effort into this [project/ report/ …], but it doesn’t deliver the results I expected.”

  • What strategy or approach have I used … What might I do differently next time?
  • Could you help me break down my approach into steps, so we can see where I might have gone wrong?
  • Who has succeeded in this/ something similar before that I can ask for advice?
  • What have I already achieved/ done well?
  • Which skills do I need to learn to deliver a better result next time?

Conclusion

Here’s what I covered in this article:

1. It’s not common to actively ask for feedback at work. Although there are plenty of benefits that result from it. 

2. We should be selective about the people we ask for feedback and what feedback we’re listening to (and acting on): Feedback that’s accurate and coming from a credible person is the best. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative.

3. When you ask for feedback, your goal is not only to fix what went wrong but also to find out what went right. Asking thoughtful follow-up questions unearths the most valuable insights.

4. To trigger positive change and make meaningful progress in your personal and professional development, set up a plan for how you will act on the insights you gained.

Are you looking for ways to improve the quality of your work? Is your boss or a colleague complaining about your performance—or are you unhappy with how you’re doing? It might be time to ask for feedback. 

It might be daunting, but from my own experience, I can tell you that the most negative and hurting feedback can be life-changing. And the positive feedback you receive can truly make your day.

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