What is the most common feedback we get at work? Good job! These words are useless! They tell us nothing except that we can come back to work tomorrow, which isn't such a bad thing. The statement "good job" does nothing to improve our skills. Unfortunately, not everyone wants real feedback. Feedback can be terrifying! Not all of us can see the bright side in feedback like Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber.
In this article, we are going to discuss the problems and solutions to obtaining high-quality feedback. Feedback is one of the most powerful things you can obtain in order to improve your performance.
Problem #1: The word feedback is terrible. It's a trigger word that conjures up negative emotions. Feedback is similar to the words 'calm down.' Have those words ever calmed anyone down in the history of time? Nooo!
Solution #1: Change the word feedback. Change feedback to something else, such as advice, recommendation, or suggestion. Replacing the word feedback changes everything. For example, can you provide me with advice on improving my report? Can you give me a few recommendations on how I can improve my presentation? Will you share a suggestion on how I can develop my excel skills. On the other hand, the word feedback feels like a booby trap. You say one wrong thing, and the person receiving your feedback might break down!
Problem #2a How we ask for feedback. How do most people ask for feedback? We blindside the person we are asking. For example, we present in a team meeting, and after the presentation, we ask our boss an open ended question. How did that go? What's the problem with this approach? First, we catch our boss off guard, and second, they do not have any comments prepared.
Problem #2b Positive skew. When you ask someone who is off guard, are they more likely to provide positive or negative feedback? Survey says positive feedback unless they are Simon Cowell, the king of sting. Most people will default to positive feedback because they don't want to hurt your feelings, put you on the defensive, or make you feel bad. As a result, positive feedback is more comfortable and it's plain easier.
Problem #2c Focus of the feedback provider. If you didn't ask your boss for feedback before you started presenting then who was your boss thinking about during your presentation, you or themselves? Sad to say but probably themselves. This doesn't make them a bad person, but this is a natural human tendency. Asking for feedback after the fact without any warning is fraught with a ton of problems.
Solution #2 Ask for feedback ahead of time. Here are two examples. The first example is obtaining feedback on a presentation. Before you present, go up to your boss and say, "I am working on my opening pitch. Can you listen to the first minute of my pitch and provide suggestions on how I can make it better?" The second example is for an excel model. If you are completing an excel model, I would give your boss a heads up and say, "I am finishing a financial model, and I would appreciate your guidance on a few formulas to determine if I can improve my code. Let me know when you have a minute."
Let's break down how this solves problems 2a, 2b, and 2c.
Solution #2a We are asking ahead of time with specificity. By approaching the person ahead of time, we are giving them a heads up. Second, I am only asking for a time commitment of 1-2 mins of observation rather than asking them to watch the entire presentation, which is cognitively exhausting. Moreover, by asking them to review a couple of formulas, we are specific in what we are looking for, which makes this a much easier request for the feedback provider. Many people ask for feedback in an open-ended vague manner, such as "can you watch my presentation". That sounds dull and exhausting! I have to watch the whole thing? Really? The only speech I am listening to end-to-end is my child's, and that depends on whether I am in a good mood. I am kidding, or am I?
Solution #2b Ask for critical feedback. In my requests above I am explicitly asking for critical feedback on how to improve. Asking for suggestions to strengthen the presentation shows I am open to feedback and desire to improve. I am also changing the word feedback to suggestions, improvements, guidance, or something which isn't a trigger word. I suggest asking for critical feedback no matter how senior you are. A CEO of a Fortune 500 company came to my business school and asked interns to give him feedback on his talk, and he specifically said: "I don't just want the good stuff." The CEO demonstrated he was appreciated feedback, and his example cascaded through the organization where they had a culture of feedback.
Solution #2c Asking ahead changes their focus. Asking ahead of time ensures that their attention is on you rather than themselves. Most people are always thinking about themselves. This doesn't make people bad, but rather it is essential to know how you can overcome this natural human tendency.
Challenge #3 How we receive feedback. It will be tempting to act defensive, especially if you do not agree with their perspective. However, pause and put yourself in the shoes of the person providing feedback. What would you do if someone asked you for feedback, and they were defensive? You would never give them feedback again! Why? You would believe they weren't interested in the feedback. Defensiveness will ruin your chances for ever receiving feedback again unless you're married in which case you are destined to receive feedback no matter how you act.
Solution #3 Listen openly and say thank you. After you ask for feedback, there are only two words that must come out of your mouth? Screw you! Just kidding, the only two words should be thank you. How you receive feedback is the most crucial piece of obtaining high quality feedback. Research shows that the real power of feedback lies in the receiver. Therefore you must be excellent at receiving feedback. This makes sense because if someone is receptive, then providing them with feedback is easy.
Pro tip, if you want to keep obtaining great feedback, then circle back to the person who gave you feedback and tell them what you implemented from their suggestions and how it has helped you. Imagine if someone told you they applied your feedback, how would you feel? You would be impressed because few people action critical feedback, and even fewer say to the person what they did. My brain would think, who me? Did you use my advice? WOW!
I encourage you to do three things.
1) Ask for feedback ahead of time by using a different word than feedback
2) Receive feedback gracefully and thank the feedback provider
3) Schedule a date in your calendar to go back to that person and tell them what you implemented
Pick one person and do this in the next few days, no matter how afraid you are of the feedback. Remember to be like Lloyd and see the positive in all types of feedback. Lloyd says, "so you're telling me there is a chance!"