Receive Better Feedback by Asking

Own Your Feedback (Part 1)

If work were a role-playing game, feedback would be upgrades in our equipment.

Feedback is data that could lead to improvements in our work performance, our relationships with teammates, and our understanding of ourselves. 

Unfortunately, we cannot rely on company-driven performance reviews as our only source of feedback. They are unreliable and infrequent; actions are forgotten and context is lost. Feedback also gets dropped from performance reviews if it doesn’t fit within the review framework or seems too trivial.

We need more real-time feedback. But how do we get it? Feedback holds value for us as receivers, but how do feedback givers feel about it?

This study discovered that receiving and giving feedback could feel as threatening as getting punched in the face. We might feel intimidated while receiving feedback, but our teammates feel just as intimidated giving it.

Giving feedback takes courage: “I’ve observed that you don’t include me in certain meetings, and that makes me feel undervalued.” 

It takes energy: “There’s room for improvement in your code quality.”

And it takes trust: “I’ve been submitting ideas on how we can improve the company culture for months. I hope things change.”

If we want to receive feedback from our teammates, we need to show them that they did not squander their courage, energy, and trust on us.

We need to:

  1. Ask for feedback.

  2. Listen and understand their needs.

  3. Follow-up and follow-through.

This post is the first in a series on how to receive feedback. This first post is about asking for feedback.

Why Ask?

I’ve received feedback in many shapes and forms in my 10 years as a professional. Vague feedback like “I’d like to see more vision planning from you,” or “Your communication could improve,” has been used to justify my lower performance scores. One of my prior managers even told me I received a low score because I wasn’t experienced enough due to my sheltered life. I was a junior software engineer at the time and I was devastated.

I became frustrated whenever I received vague, delayed, and unactionable feedback, but I also never took ownership in asking for feedback. I would wait until my manager or teammates brought it up, and it usually only came around performance review time. I thought I was doing well until someone told me that I wasn’t. 

What I know now is that asking for feedback is the best way to start a feedback conversation. It helps you take charge of your own growth and it reduces the threat response in you and the feedback-giver. It may still feel uncomfortable, but you’re both ready for it.

Be Timely and Specific

When you ask your teammate for feedback, you’re asking them to search their memory for data about you. To help them retrieve relevant memories, be timely because memory fades with time, and be specific because cues aid the process of memory retrieval.

If you are specific with your request, the feedback-giver can focus on what you care about. If you asked me about my trip to London, I’d tell you the weather was overcast and the food was delicious. If you asked me about my dining experience at Dishoom (restaurant in London), I’d tell you what I ordered and how expensive it was. Different levels of specificity yield different answers.

Other examples:

Non-specific: How am I doing?

Specific: Have you noticed any improvements in my written communication recently?

Non-specific: How can I better support you?

Specific: How can I better support you in growing your technical skills?

Non-specific: How engaged do you feel in our meetings?

Specific: Did you find our budget planning meeting useful? What did you like the most? What did you like the least?

Provide a Reason

Consider the following requests:

Without reason: “Are there any processes on our team that we could get rid of?”

With reason: “I’d like to help our team move faster. Are there any processes on our team that we could get rid of?”

Which request would you take more seriously?

When requesting feedback, provide a reason to help the feedback-giver understand the impact of their feedback. According to the copy machine study, the actual reason may not even matter; it only needs to exist.

Providing a reason also makes the feedback-giver aware of the problems you’re trying to solve and could lead to more creative solutions.

Without reason: “Are there any processes on our team that we could get rid of?”

Feedback-giver: “None come to mind.”

VS

With reason: “I’d like to help our team move faster. Are there any processes on our team that we could get rid of?”

Feedback-giver: “None come to mind, but we do spend a lot of time manually testing our app when we could be running automated tests.”

Prepare the Feedback Giver

If you ask someone for feedback without prior warning, you risk receiving a cached thought -- their last deliberate evaluation of you, which may not be accurate or up-to-date.

Prepare the feedback-giver by sending them a written request for feedback ahead of time. 

“Hi, I scheduled a 1:1 for us this Wednesday. In that meeting, I’d love to hear some feedback from you on how the offsite went.”

I rejoice when I receive a message like this because it gives me the time and space to recall relevant data from my memory and translate it into useful feedback.

Priming your teammate with an early feedback request will also help them find more opportunities to help you. If I know you want feedback on your presentation skills, I might attend more of your presentations.

It’s hard for us to identify which requests need extra deliberation by our teammates. If the request is important and you require detail, give your teammate an option to get back to you after thinking through it. If they choose to give you the feedback later, send them a written request and schedule a meeting to make sure the follow-up happens.

Persist

If you don’t make feedback a priority, why should your teammates? Persist in asking your teammates for specific feedback in a timely manner, explain why you want it, and give them time to prepare if they need it. Offer to do a feedback-exchange, so both of you can learn from each other.

Conclusion

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career is that I can own my growth and influence the quality of feedback I receive. Teammates are open to helping you, but need your help in understanding how they can help you.

Ask for feedback and you’ll be better prepared to listen and actively participate in the feedback conversation (see part 2).

When asking for feedback:

  1. Be specific and timely

  2. Provide a reason for the feedback

  3. Prepare the feedback-giver

  4. Persist!

You’ll notice the benefits as soon as you try.

Part 2 is about listening during a feedback conversation and leading a feedback conversation.

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Other posts in this series:

Part 2: Listen, Lead, and Grow - describes how to listen and ask questions during a feedback conversation

Part 3: Preparation Makes Perfect - describes how to prepare for a feedback conversation to get the most out of it.

Part 4: You Are Not a High-Performer - describes how feedback can be challenging to receive because it challenges our labels.


Since this post is about asking for feedback, I have to ask:

  1. Which section in this post did you find the most useful? The least useful?

  2. Did you find enough value in this post to share it with others? If not, what’s missing?

Respond to this email or reach out on Twitter, and let me know!


Thank you Meeta Sharma, Max Nussenbaum, Kristin Eberth, Melvin Salvador, Mo Almeshekah, Nicolas Grenié, Jonathan Wasserstrum, Raghav Arora, Snigdha Roy, and Tom White for helping me edit this post!