The vast majority of people will agree that feedback is the most important tool we have to improve ourselves and others. How else are you supposed to know if you’re doing a good job if nobody tells you? How are you supposed to improve if your weaknesses remain hidden? Understanding these two oversimplifications allows most people to buy into the idea that feedback is a valuable tool. Many of us even pay real attention to the act of asking for feedback or offering it. The problem is that 90% of the time, we’re doing it wrong.
I typically see two main categories of feedback being handed out:
- The “good job” feedback.
This is the easiest type to give, and it’s really important. Letting someone know they did a good job on a task is very powerful. Giving feedback directly after the task’s completion makes this even more impactful. Rapid, positive feedback has three huge benefits:
- Positive feedback adds to the bank account of trust in the relationship.
- Letting someone know their strengths can help build a person’s confidence.
- It creates a culture of positive reinforcement.
- The classic “compliment sandwich.”
A lot of critical feedback is in the form of “I think you did this well, and this could be better, but this other thing was good.” The compliment sandwich is a really useful way to deliver difficult feedback safely, without hurting someone’s feelings.
So what is wrong with these two approaches?
These two approaches themselves are not broken, but the way they’re used is. And it’s not the person giving the feedback’s fault either! It is the person soliciting the feedback who is to blame.
Requests for feedback should be specific — based on intended outcomes or incremental improvements in an area where someone is focusing on improving.
Why don’t we ask for feedback the right way?
Motivation is a big reason for starters. Most people have jobs where they are stressed all the time, totally disengaged, or lack any support from their peers and supervisors. In these situations, it’s difficult to imagine finding the motivation to work out where you should improve. Why should you make strides in a workplace you don’t care about?
The other reason we don’t do feedback correctly is because it’s hard. It requires effort and direction. Knowing what you want and then working towards it is much harder than just showing up. Many people don’t realize that their careers and their lives are in their hands, so it’s a perspective that requires a person to step back from their day-to-day life and actually think about. No one, and I mean no one, does this instinctively or naturally. It’s a habit and a skill that we have to learn.
How can we fix this?
The solution to many of life’s problems is in the cunning use of paper and pens (or pencils). Writing down your ideas is a life-changing skill. I’m not going to go into the psychology and the validity of this point, but if you want to read more about it, you can here, here, here, and here — and a million other places. If you start with a simple list of your goals and then a shortlist of your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be off to the races.
Start with your goals. What do you want out of your life, your career, and your current job? Just those three for now.
When you’re done, list what skills and experiences you’ll need for each one of those three goals. (Don’t write down anything about changing other people.) Next, write down which skills and experiences you already have and where you are weak.
Create a list
For example, a very stripped down version might look like this:
- I would like to be a manager or a team lead in the next few years. Managers need to:
- Be able to manage up.
- I’m not great at communicating with my manager the way she likes.
- Understand business goals.
- I think I’m good at understanding why we are working on something.
- Design and measure specific data for success.
- I think I’m very good at defining success metrics.
- Design processes and make sure they’re being followed.
- I’m pretty terrible at making plans and getting others to follow them.
- Communicate clearly with their direct reports.
- I’m a little shy when it comes to voicing my opinion.
- I’m too much of a people pleaser.
- Be able to manage up.
- Develop a background in the type of work they’re managing.
- Have led smaller projects in the past.
- Learn about management from books or school.
Write down some feedback questions
Now pick two, ONLY two, to start with and start working on them. Once you know which two you’re going to work on, write down an example feedback solicitation for each one.
- Pick one strength and start getting confirmation that you are actually good at it. For example:
- I’ve created a list of success metrics for this next step of the project. Could you look at it and let me know if this is good? I’m trying to make sure that I’ve got this down.
- Decide to strengthen one of your weaknesses. For example:
- Can I ask you for some feedback? I’m trying to voice my opinion more in team meetings while still trying to work toward consensus. Did you feel like I spoke up more than usual in that last meeting?
And there you go! Those are feedback questions. There are two huge benefits to this technique:
- You are now the one driving your career and skills growth. It’s no longer a random crapshoot of lessons you’re picking up from the work environment through hints, clues, and osmosis.
- It signals your intent to the people you are soliciting feedback from. This tells them you are serious about improving in some aspect. Your actions demonstrate that you are open to change and are inviting others in to help. Your openness tells them you are a thoughtful person who cares about growth. It lets them know that it’s okay for them to ask you for feedback, too. In this way, feedback can be like sizzling fajitas at a restaurant: When the first person orders it, everyone else hears the sound and smells the sizzling peppers and starts ordering the same thing.
Every now and again, you are going to want to give someone unsolicited feedback. Hopefully, this is mainly in the “good job” category, but sometimes you have to make people aware of a problem that they are not working on. General feedback like this still has utility, but use it lightly. Treat these situations as though your target had asked you, “Where do you think I can improve in [x] specific area?” and then hit them with the compliment sandwich. With any luck, this new data can become the focus of their next set of skills to work on. Sadly, it’s often ignored.
You can’t guarantee that taking your career into your hands, building out a plan, and then executing that plan will work. You cannot predict how people will react when you ask them for clear and specific feedback. If no one around you is going to enjoy the sizzling fajitas effect of your earnest feedback attempts, then they don’t deserve you!