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To excel in our lives and careers, we must be aware of what we do well, areas we can improve in, and how people perceive us. Feedback from others is one of the fastest ways to focus our efforts, course-correct, and achieve our goals.
Receiving feedback and putting it into action is especially important to grow in our careers. None of us are perfect, and we all have blindspots. Our work can benefit from someone else’s input , but if you’re known for being defensive or rigid, your colleagues may not tell you when something is missing the mark or give you future opportunities to fix your mistakes.
Those who can gracefully receive feedback, and put it into practice, are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt and the extra attention to their work that can make the difference between good and great performance. While the idea of feedback may seem simple, our emotions and ego can often get in the way, making it more complicated. Being deliberate in asking for feedback and being in the right headspace to receive it are key to the feedback process.
When you follow a systematic approach for giving and receiving feedback, it results in honest, thoughtful feedback and follow-through.
All feedback is not equally useful or effective. It helps to distinguish feedback and advice from criticism. Feedback and advice are closely related. The most significant difference is that feedback is a response or reaction to a specific output or activity –what aspects of this worked or did not work for me – while advice is a recommendation for a course of action –you should do x to better meet my needs. In practice, when we talk about feedback, we generally mean a combination of both.
Criticism, however, tends to be thought of as negative. Both criticism and feedback involve evaluation -- what is the difference?
Good feedback offers new insight, builds awareness, and imparts corrective information. Criticism involves judgment or fault-finding. Good feedback is empowering. Criticism is demoralizing.
These three principles can help you assess whether it is good, useful feedback – “constructive criticism” – rather than unhelpful criticism:
- Intention: The most effective leaders genuinely want to see their colleagues do well. Make sure any advice you give comes from a place of wanting the best for someone.
- Empathy (heart): Always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and assume they want to do a good job. Can you remember a time when you were on the receiving end of feedback? If you were in your colleagues’ shoes, how would you want the message delivered?
- Forward movement: People can interpret feedback as fault-finding if you focus on past events or mistakes. Keep verbiage positive, and make your statements future-focused. Instead of “You need to stop coming in late,” you could say, “to be successful in the role, we need someone who’s here on time consistently.”
Prepare yourself: How to ask for and receive constructive feedback
Be strategic about who you choose to ask for feedback as well as the content. Not everyone willing to give advice is necessarily qualified to give it. Asking relevant peers at the right time with the right questions will ensure you get valuable feedback that can help you take action to succeed.
- Get clear on why you’re asking for feedback
Know your goal in asking for feedback. Most of the time, your goal will be to gain an accurate picture of what you’re doing well and where you can improve. The goal is to walk away with actionable takeaways that you will implement.
You know feedback is valuable when you have a clear sense of something you will do differently or insight into a destructive pattern that you had not been able to spot. Productive feedback allows you to grow in your role, double down on your strengths, and create an easy-to-follow improvement plan.
- Identify who is a relevant source
When deciding who to turn to for advice, think of the colleagues with the most knowledge of your work. Choose people you interact with the most. Consider also whose work and opinions you respect, although it can be useful to hear from others as well.
To get a well-rounded perspective, consult colleagues, team members, clients, and managers. While your customer may not know you the way your manager does, you’ll benefit from seeing yourself from more than one angle.
- Prepare questions ahead of time.
When asking for advice, have specific questions in mind. Your questions should align with your goals mentioned above. Spend some time reflecting on whether there are areas where you often struggle or where you sense there might be a disconnect and use your questions to explore them further.
For example, if your goal is to improve client satisfaction scores, ask questions centered around your customers’ experience. Keep questions open-ended and be prepared to ask follow-up questions. Don’t waste the opportunity to gain insight by hurrying past answers you don’t understand. Asking for a specific example or “can you tell me more about that” lets the feedback giver know that you really want to understand their perspective.
- Receive feedback as a gift
Just as important as seeking feedback is hearing advice with an open mind and a desire to implement it. Remember that feedback is an opportunity to understand how others perceive you and your work.You don’t have to agree with it, but knowing other’s perspectives is more useful than not knowing. Put yourself in the other persons’ shoes and keep in mind that it can be just as hard to be the person giving the feedback. Try to put your ego aside and accept advice with a positive attitude.
- Gather feedback and follow-through
Think about what you’ll do with the feedback after you’ve received it. Organize the feedback so that you can refer back to it. Make a step-by-step plan that outlines how you’ll implement the feedback in tangible ways. Consider sharing that plan back with at least some of the people who gave it.
For example, your boss may have suggested work/life balance as a priority. An action-item would be to turn off and put away your laptop every day by 6 PM. The advice was to find balance; the action was to implement a cutoff time for work devices.
These tips can help you follow through on feedback:
- Review everything from your discussion and highlight the changes you can implement immediately.
- Think about the changes that may require more time and break it down into a step-by-step strategy to put them into action.
- Request time for another video call or meeting in the coming weeks or months to assess your progress. The appointment will keep you accountable for applying those changes to your work.
Receiving feedback doesn’t mean just listening to advice. Almost as important as asking for feedback is the state of mind you’re in when receiving it. Receiving input isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t like or agree with it. Your mindset is everything when it comes to receiving advice.
Therapists agree that counseling sessions aren’t enough for a person to make changes. Their clients need to be ready to receive help, have uncomfortable realizations, and make adjustments to their habits and beliefs.
The following tips can help you prepare:
- Be willing to accept information with a positive, open mind. Feedback is about someone else’s perception -- in this case, perception is reality. Although your default may be denial or defensiveness to someone else’s views, try to understand the situation from their perspective.
Keep in mind that becoming defensive when a professional gives you advice will not work in your favor. You’ll be far less likely to receive honest responses in the future. Remind yourself that feedback on performance isn’t personal. Receive the comments pragmatically instead of emotionally.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Although difficult, feedback is a positive asset that will help you improve and achieve your goals. The opposite of a growth mindset is one that’s fixed. A fixed mindset views feedback as an attack on self-worth.
Remember that any negative feedback about your performance is all part of the process. Be thankful that the feedback reveals potential blind spots that could prevent you from reaching your full potential.
To create an environment that allows for constructive, efficient communication, use the tenants of Nonviolent Communication (NVS), a well-known communication theory:
- Release any judgments or preconceived notions of the person giving you feedback. Assume that the advice-giver has good intentions. Assuming the best creates a neutral environment for a peaceful and productive exchange to take place.
- Be vulnerable. You may learn something new during feedback -- that’s why you’ve asked for it, after all --but don’t be afraid to express your feelings. The best way to avoid misunderstandings is to ask clarifying questions when you don’t understand or disagree. When in doubt, simply respond, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” You’re allowed to have your authentic reactions, but keeping them professional and appropriate will ensure that you continue to get useful feedback in the future. No one wants to take the effort and risk of providing honest feedback if the receiver is defensive, dismissive, argumentative, or overly emotional.
- Separate your performance from your identity. It bears repeating that feedback is about your work performance, not about you as a person. It can be hard at first, but reminding yourself of this helps you not to take criticism personally. If at any point during the conversation you feel belittled or humiliated, give yourself a moment to distance yourself and take control of your emotions. If necessary, be honest and say, “I’m going to need some more time to process that one. Let’s move on for now.” You can follow up later via email or another conversation if you feel the difficult feedback warrants more exploration.
Colleagues are the people you’ll most likely be asking for feedback. Feedback from managers and other leaders is valuable but don’t discount colleagues on the same level. They can usually offer straightforward advice without fear of repercussions. Also, their advice can be easier to tolerate because you’re more comfortable with them.
As mentioned above, it’s always best to prepare questions ahead of time. Pre-planning not only keeps you aligned with your goal, but it makes your colleague’s job easier by giving them direction and focus.
Research has shown that people are better at giving feedback when you ask for something specific. If your goal is general, you can try a variation of this popular 3-question approach: What one thing from this project should I do more of? What one thing from this project should I do less of? What one thing could have made it even better?
Use the following questions as inspiration for asking colleagues for feedback:
- What are my strengths? How can I perform better in these areas?
- How do you feel about our level of interaction? Do you prefer more or less interaction? How would you like to see it change?
- In the past three to six months, how have I shown that I care about our team’s wellbeing?
- What actions or efforts would you like to see from me in the next six months?
- Do you feel valued as a team member? How could I improve showing appreciation to you and the team?
- Rate how effective you find me as a communicator.
- In what ways can I change/improve my communication with you and the team?
- What suggestions do you have to assist me in being the best (title) I can be?
- What are ways I can make your job easier?
Many of us are now working remotely, which can make seeking feedback more difficult. For one, we may not be able to walk over to our colleagues’ desk to request their time. Second, with a lack of in-person time, we must now request meetings via email and receive the feedback by video conference. It can feel more formal and more daunting.
Although emailing has its downsides, requesting feedback in an email allows you to outline the purpose and objectives. Clarify that it need not be a long or formal meeting, but a conversation to help you assess your performance and improve your work moving forward.
Keep the limitations of remote meetings in mind. Communication hallmarks like eye contact and body language can get lost in video calls. Direct eye contact isn’t possible, and hand gestures and posture don’t always come through the screen. Despite good camera and microphone quality, video conferencing only gives us a “flat” impression relative to face-to-face communication. Lack of face-to-face presence when discussing sensitive topics can leave room for misunderstandings and misread social cues. Before the feedback session, prepare by consciously commiting to assuming good intentions, not reacting too quickly, and asking clarifying questions.
Also remember that you may not receive the same amount of feedback if your team is away from an office environment for the first time. Many companies are still adjusting to the dispersed team and new work environment.
When asking for feedback virtually, the same rules apply as if you were asking in person, but pay special attention to these three:
Keep your request brief. Regardless of the type of feedback you’re looking for, keep your email brief and to the point. Lead with your request for a feedback session. Follow with details about the specific areas or types of feedback you seek. Keep text to a minimum and keep your email scannable.
Be clear and specific. Busy colleagues won’t read long sentences. They often don’t read questions properly either. Format your questions for clarity by making them big and bold. Be specific about how you’d like to receive feedback and when.
Prioritize an area of focus. Choose a specific event, person, product, or service in which you want the feedback. If you have a product name, ticket ID, reference, or event an image that will help your colleague remember, use it! Include a brief summary of your role on the project or attach the piece of work to make it easy for the person to remember.
This article is helpful for those tasked with giving feedback as well. One of the most important aspects of feedback is empathy. If you know how to ask for and receive feedback, you’ll also be well-informed on how to give it to someone else.
To give feedback that can be received properly, start with these principles:
Get the specifics. If the person asking for feedback hasn’t provided you with prepared questions and areas to focus on, ask for clarification. Don’t start giving miscellaneous advice, or it’ll be a waste of time for everyone involved.
Have empathy. Before delivering your advice, make sure you’re coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to increase your sensitivity.
Keep statements forward-moving and factual. Keep advice future-oriented to prevent blame and criticism. Avoid opinions about the other person’s character and stick to the facts of their actions and performance.
How can you make your feedback more useful? The following fundamentals will keep it constructive:
- Be specific: Avoid generalities. Facts and specifics about how a behavior, action, or piece of work affects the customer or colleague and options that might be more effective can help the recipient identify what they need to improve and how to take action.
For example, a sales manager telling a rep to “act more professionally” can cause confusion and even insecurity in the sales rep. More constructive advice would be “dress more formally to meet with clients,” or “spend less time on chit-chat and be more direct and polished on the key points in external meetings.”
- Think it through: While reading off a script isn’t necessary, you should prepare and even practice, particularly if it is difficult feedback. Your goal is to help the recipient so you want to make your delivery as clear and neutral as possible. This is especially true for career feedback because our words can have long-term consequences on work relationships and reputations.
Think through your talking points and try to anticipate how the recipient might respond and the directions the conversation could take. Prepare additional points or examples you might use. Forethought will help you stay on track and stick to the concrete issues at hand.
- Speak from your perspective: When giving sensitive feedback, always use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. When the person on the other end of the feedback hears “I,” their defenses go down and they won’t feel attacked. For example, hearing “you need to take more initiative” can feel like an attack compared to “I appreciate when team members are proactive and try to lead projects, so I have more time for other priorities.”
When you frame feedback through your personal feelings and experiences, you eliminate blame and help the other person be more receptive to your viewpoint.
- Focus on action: The purpose of feedback is actionable follow-through. Giving someone too many areas of improvement to tackle is a sure way to overwhelm them, preventing them from taking action.
Too much feedback can make a person feel attacked or demoralized. Instead, cover a maximum of two issues and only touch upon the areas that have actionable takeaways.
- Include both positives and negatives: A well-known strategy for giving feedback involves “sandwiching” the feedback in compliments or affirmative statements at the beginning and end of the session. While this approach is useful, don’t adhere so closely that it seems inauthentic or rehearsed. Odds are, the recipient has heard of this tactic, too.
While you want to be sensitive, don’t pepper in so many compliments that they overwhelm the feedback. Remember, the point is to deliver relevant, corrective advice. You don’t want to risk the other person walking away, thinking they do not need improvement.
- Choose the time and place: Be mindful of outside factors that might interfere with giving or receiving advice effectively. Take timing and environment into account. Whenever possible, give feedback in a one-to-one setting during a mutually agreed-upon meeting time with advance notice so that the recipient can prepare themselves.
Whether you call it feedback, advice, or criticism, receiving constructive feedback helps us move forward in our careers and lives. Valuable feedback contains principles like specificity, empathy, and forward-moving statements. To receive the best feedback, be prepared with your ask. Identify what you hope to get out of the feedback and who’s qualified to give you feedback in the first place.
While most people want to know how to ask for feedback, they rarely think about getting into the right mindset to receive. To properly receive feedback, keep your defenses down, do not take any perceived criticism personally, and adopt a growth mindset that allows you to prosper from the advice instead of rejecting it.
During times of remote work, we won’t always have the ability to ask for feedback face-to-face. Prepare ahead of time by keeping requests for email feedback succinct. Also, prepare to receive advice that lacks social cues to prevent misunderstandings.
When it comes time to give feedback, put yourself in the shoes of the person asking for the feedback and deliver it systematically, with all of these goals and principles in mind. Our intentions and how we say things are often more important than what we say. Focus on being authentic, trying to help, and striving for growth.