Ask, Receive, Achieve: The Importance of Asking for Feedback

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This post’s key takeaways:

  1. Your reputation at work is your corporate capital, but all too often we don’t properly assess how we’re viewed by our counterparts
  2. Asking for feedback is critical to your professional development, but can be difficult to do
  3. It is your responsibility, and your responsibility alone, to solicit constructive feedback
  4. Download sample questions you can use to design your own 360 feedback survey

Introduction

Asking for Feedback is a ‘Need to Do’

Two Ways to Ask for Feedback

Introduction

We don’t live in a society where honesty is the norm. It’s unfortunate, but true. As much as we espouse honesty to be the best policy, what people really think and what they say are often two very different things. We tell white lies to avoid uncomfortable situations and gloss over obvious issues to skirt awkward conversations. It’s ironic, actually, since so many of us preach about the need to be honest; to “be real” and talk straight. So why can’t we actually walk the talk? Could it be that deep down (or maybe not that deep at all,) we really don’t want to know the honest truth about how others see us, so we project and don’t tell them the truth about our perspective in return? If the little voice in your head is saying, “#truth,” then guess what – you’re human.

So go ahead and give yourself permission to step out of your human self for a second. Open yourself to being vulnerable and exposed and focus on someone in your work sphere… let’s say your boss, a peer or an important client, and try to see yourself as they see you. When they see you walking into a room, what is their first thought? How do they sum you up? Their perception is your reality, so what would they say about who you are, where you’re weak and where you’re strong?

As the saying goes, thinking about stuff like this isn’t a nice to do, but a NEED to do. Why? Because as career minded individuals, many of us have defined goals, and part of the way we accomplish these goals is through the direct or indirect support of co-workers at all levels. If we’ll ultimately require their support to achieve our objectives, we need to know their willingness to support, and often that willingness is directly tied to how they view us.

If you’re like me, you might spend more time thinking about what these folks would identify as your inferior qualities vs. your superior ones; where you stumble vs. where you thrive. We intimately know our flaws, and we assume that others must see them as clearly as we do. As it turns out, that’s not actually true and your worry is really not necessary, for three key reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, we are so much harder on ourselves than others are on us
  2. Most people want to help, rather than hurt, you
  3. We don’t have to wonder what others think of us, because we have the power to ASK

Asking for Feedback is a ‘Need to Do’

Asking for feedback is a key component in growing as a person, both personally and professionally. Understanding how others view your approach to everything from running a project or meeting to interacting with fellow co-workers is crucial information to have on hand. Your reputation is your corporate capital, and being able to analyze how much investment you need in key areas is essential to achieving the next step as you climb the corporate ladder. Knowing how you’re perceived and understood within the organization is obviously essential to your analysis, and there’s a surefire way to get the data: ASK for it.

While asking for feedback can put you in a potentially vulnerable position, it does something else that is worth the discomfort. It communicates a sense of security and confidence, which are two characteristics that are highly valued in any company focused on identifying and nurturing high potential talent.

In my own career, I’ve had a complicated relationship with feedback. To be clear, the complication was simple—for much of my tenure, I really only wanted the good kind. It wasn’t until I spent time really observing the folks who consistently climbed that I realized that “good” feedback was actually limiting feedback. Sure, I felt validated and valuable, but I wasn’t getting any actionable intel to help me get to the next step. The message in good feedback is essentially ‘to keep doing what you’re doing.’ While that might be good for the short-term, it’s not a great strategy to fuel your growth. When you keep doing what you’re doing, it becomes expected, and when it’s expected, it’s not really special. What IS special, though, is when people around you see you grow, see you refine a skill or build a new one, see you interacting with peers in a more meaningful way or see you building in a new component to your brand. And typically, that kind of growth comes when you open yourself to the other, meatier type of feedback: the constructive kind.

If you’re lucky, there are people in your professional life (most importantly, your immediate manager) that are proactively giving you feedback on areas where you need to focus, improve and increase. In my experience, having this kind of constructive feedback flow to you without you actively pursuing it is the exception, and not the rule. Maybe they’re too busy, maybe they’re too self-absorbed or most likely, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so your management and peers tend to limit their feedback to either praise when earned, or simply, none at all. I say all of this to make a simple point that you already know, but might well be reminded of:

It is up to you, and you alone, to seek out the feedback that will help you achieve your next objective.

Two Ways to Ask for Feedback

So how do you actually solicit meaningful feedback?

To request ongoing, event-based feedback, ask specific questions in person (best option) or via phone/email (second best option). Let’s say you’ve just finished making a presentation. Instead of asking another attendee, “how do you think I did in there?” or “did I do okay?” ask the question one of these ways:

  • What are one or two things I could have done better during that presentation?
  • If I had to make this presentation again and adjust one or two components, where would you suggest I focus?
  • At what point in the presentation do you think the audience was most engaged? What about least engaged?

Ideally, you should ask these types of questions to multiple attendees at various levels (peers, managers, direct reports, even clients if kosher) so you can access feedback from different perspectives.

To get more structured feedback, consider deploying a survey that asks recipients to critique you against a series of competency statements (I have some sample statements to help you get started.) Word to the wise: if you do decide to execute a survey like this, clear it with your direct manager first. Your HR department may be able to assist, or there may be rules of engagement on how you can communicate with co-workers in this capacity.

Creating a survey and sending it out to a group of co-workers (again, the audience should be a mix of peers, managers, direct reports and clients where applicable) will give you a richer set of data that you can analyze for patterns. Some tips:

  • Use a web-based service like surveymonkey.com to create the survey. You can set up a free account and you’ll get all of the tools you need to send out a professional looking survey that will come complete with basic analysis on the responses you receive.
  • Make sure you include at least one demographic question in the survey so you can slice and dice the data based on the profile of the respondent. For example, the first question in your survey should be something like: Please indicate your relationship to [insert your name here], with the following possible answers: peer, manager/manager level, direct report, external client.
  • In the survey invitation, stress that responses are 100% anonymous. People are obviously more willing to be honest if they are assured that their feedback can’t be traced back to them.
  • Limit your survey to a max of 10-15 questions. Most should have a pre-selected choice of answers so that you can analyze the responses effectively, but it is a good idea to include at least one open-ended questions where the recipient can answer in free form text. Make this question the last one. This gives the respondent an opportunity to warm up with your form questions before having the chance to provide more open and honest detail in their own words.

When I think about surveys like this, I like to focus on questions that reflect characteristics of high performers, so I’ve put together a statement bank that will help you start building a survey that solicits feedback in five key categories: Communication, Confidence, Execution, Inter-Personal Relationships and Trust. The goal is to pick two to three questions from each category that speak to you, or use these sample statements as a jumping off point to create your own based on the categories you believe your organization most highly values. Once you’ve selected the statements you’d like to be evaluated against, your survey will effectively ask respondents to rate their agreement level when applying the competency to you.

My final thought on this topic (for now): asking for feedback might be difficult, but it is the single most worthwhile thing you can do to advance your career goals. Start slowly, by asking for specific, event-based feedback from your manager and peers, and also consider talking to your manager about creating a more formal anonymous survey to yield structured feedback that you can analyze and create a game plan against.

Information is power, and in the case of soliciting feedback, that power is the power you need to achieve your next career objective.

If you like this post, don’t like it, can think of 1-2 ways I could have made it better or just have questions, leave a comment below.

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