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How to Get the Feedback That You Need

Growing in your career means asking for hard conversations.

Key points

  • You can’t control how others give you feedback, but you still need to gather data to learn and grow.
  • Managers and their direct reports frequently experience feedback conversations differently.
  • Frame your feedback conversations so that people give you the information you need.
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Two women seated in conversation
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Recently, while I was chatting with a young professional, Elaine* (not her real name), she shared a challenge she was experiencing with her manager. The manager was giving Elaine feedback on some areas of needed improvement; however, the delivery was so harsh and personal in nature that Elaine was not only feeling demoralized but also had no idea what she was supposed to do to improve. In fact, she had sought me out for advice because she no longer felt comfortable nor safe broaching the topic with her manager.

This situation is, unfortunately, far too common. We all need feedback. We all need guidance and information so that we can continue to improve and grow, as I’ve written here previously. Great feedback points out our blind spots and our areas of strength, and individuals who deliver feedback well help us to develop a plan of action to address the gaps and continue to build upon the strengths. Ultimately, great feedback should build relationships and develop trust. But the reality is often the opposite, and like with my young friend Elaine, these conversations end up hurting instead of helping.

You can’t control how others give you feedback, nor their skills in this area (though perhaps this is an opportunity for you to give them some feedback!). But you still need to gather input and information regarding your strengths and gaps. You need to do the work to get the feedback that you need so that you can continue to progress, both personally and professionally.

Why feedback conversations are so hard

A recent study found that more than 75 percent of managers felt satisfied with the outcome of a difficult conversation with their direct report, whereas only 46 percent of employees felt satisfied with the outcome of a difficult conversation with their manager. Another study found that “one in four people have been putting off an uncomfortable conversation for at least six months, one in 10 have been doing so for a year and another one in 10 have been staying mum on an awkward issue for more than two years.” Further, 37 percent would consider quitting their job, and 11 percent actually did quit, to avoid having the conversation. Think about that. Nearly 50 percent of employees would quit their jobs rather than talk about obnoxious behavior, poor performance, or broken promises, the top three topics people said they were avoiding.

Why is this? If feedback is so critical to our growth and our relationships, why are we so bad at it?

First, it’s because we don’t teach it. At no point in school or in our professional lives do we teach or coach people to give feedback effectively, and it’s a shame because it’s one of the primary roles of management. And it can impact individuals’ career progression and well-being, as well as both team and organizational culture.

And, of course, feedback doesn’t just show up at work. We give feedback to people all the time (or, worse, withhold it) in our personal lives, too. So not only are we potentially damaging our professional relationships, reputation, and career progression, but we also are inflicting harm on those we claim to care about the most.

Feedback conversations are hard because instead of focusing on the behavior or the action, we make it about feelings. And we don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, so we withhold critical information. Or we wait so long to provide the feedback that we allow our own feelings to take over, making it more about ourselves than the other person. Or we make it about some subjective feeling we have about another person (“I just don’t like you”) as opposed to focusing on objective behavior (“Here is a concrete example of how your work product isn’t meeting expectations”). And as the recipient, it can be easy to focus too much on how the feedback makes us feel, as opposed to the content of the message. No matter the reason, the result is going to be a damaged relationship.

How to ask for (and respond to) feedback

My favorite model for delivering feedback is immediate, objective, and impactful. First, any feedback should be delivered close to the action or behavior being discussed. Don’t wait weeks or months to tell someone how they are excelling or where they aren’t meeting your expectations. Second, it should be focused on observed behavior or action, not second or third-hand information or personal feelings. And third, the feedback should clearly demonstrate the impact of that behavior on the individual or others. Any feedback conversation should have as the primary goal the growth and development of the person who is the recipient of the feedback.

As the person seeking feedback, you can use this model as well to request effective, actionable feedback that you can use. Every time you come to the end of a project or an assignment, seek out several people who worked with you and ask them to provide input on two questions:

  • What are two or three things you think I did particularly well on that project or assignment?
  • What are one or two things I could have done better or differently?

When you ask these questions of others close to the end of an assignment, you’re making it immediate. And by connecting it to your work on a specific project or assignment (as opposed to the vague question, “How am I doing?”), you’re giving them the action or behavior to evaluate as well as the impact. You’re making it objective.

The key is that you don’t hit people with a cold ask. Instead, ask to schedule a conversation in a week to give them some time to think about it. When you ask for feedback on the spot, you rarely get anything that is worthwhile or useful for your progress.

And then, you have to do the hard work of sitting in the feedback conversation. Your job is to listen, resist trying to defend yourself, ask questions for clarification, express gratitude, and then go away and reflect on what you heard. Not all feedback should be acted upon, and as a growing professional, you must learn which deserves your focus and energy and which doesn’t. But if someone has taken the time to give you feedback, no matter how it was delivered, it is worth your reflection. They are telling you something about their perception of you as a professional. And that is an enormous gift.

And what if, like my friend Elaine, you’re unclear about what you should do next? Keep asking questions until you do understand. There is never anything wrong with asking for what you need. Ask questions like, “Can you give me a specific example of how I could improve in this area?” Or, “Would you be willing to help me identify some action steps I could take moving forward?” Make the other person part of the solution and show that you really do want to grow and develop.

Above all else, remember: No one will ever care about your career more than you, nor should they. It’s your responsibility to seek out the feedback you need and to do the constant, active work of growing and developing, learning, and paying attention to build the career you want to have.

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