Get the Feedback You Need

by Carolyn O’Hara

Quick Takes

  • Understand your strengths
  • Focus your limited time for professional development
  • Check in on how you did in the moment
  • Ask, “What’s one thing I could improve?”
  • Probe for specifics

You need feedback to learn and grow, and if you’re waiting for your annual review to find out how you’re performing, you’re not getting enough of it. But how do you get the focused input you need? And if your boss is stingy with pointers and advice, how do you encourage them to give you more? Who else should you be asking to help you improve?

What the Experts Say

Receiving feedback can be “a stressful experience,” says Ed Batista, an executive coach and an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. That’s why many people hesitate to ask for it. But the more often you do, the less stressful it becomes to initiate the conversation and to hear the comments. “If you’re having a feedback conversation every week, there’s less to be surprised by and more opportunity to modify your behavior,” Batista explains. The process will also make you happier and more productive at work, adds Sheila Heen, author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. “People who go out and solicit negative feedback—meaning they aren’t just fishing for compliments—report higher satisfaction,” she says. “They adapt more quickly to new roles, get higher performance reviews, and show others they are committed to doing their jobs.” Here’s how to ask for feedback that helps you get ahead.

Understand what you’re looking for

Think about the kind of feedback you crave. Do you want more appreciation or acknowledgment? Evaluation of your performance on a particular project or task? Or general coaching about how you can improve and learn? Knowing this will help you craft your approach, says Heen. “You can go to your boss and say, ‘I feel like I get a ton of appreciation around here. I know I’m valued. What I don’t have a sense of is what I need to work on.’” And while advice on areas in which you can develop is often the most useful, “there is value in asking for positive feedback as well,” says Batista. Don’t hesitate to ask your boss to review your performance on an obviously successful project. “It can be an opportunity to build a stronger relationship,” he says.

Ask for feedback in real time

If you want some insight into how you did on a particular task or how you might improve on the next project, don’t dawdle. It’s best to ask sooner rather than later. Batista advises that you not try to do it all in one conversation. “Chop it up into manageable chunks and space out the interactions,” he says. You also don’t have to schedule time in advance or make a formal approach. “Don’t think of it as sitting down to have an official conversation,” says Heen. “Just reach out to your boss, colleagues, or clients and have a very quick and informal coaching exchange.” You might pull your boss aside after a meeting or close a conversation with a client with a parting request for their reaction to your role on a recent project.

Pose specific questions

Whatever you do, don’t start off by asking, “Do you have any feedback for me?” “That’s a terrible question,” says Heen. “The answer is almost always no and you learn nothing.” She recommends instead asking, “What’s one thing I could improve?” so it’s clear that you’re asking for coaching and it’s clear that you assume there’s at least one thing you can work on. You can also tailor the question to the specific situation: “What’s one thing I could have done better in that meeting or presentation?” You should also avoid asking questions that are likely to result in yes- or no- answers. “Asking questions that begin with ‘how’ or ‘what’ will elicit fuller responses,” Batista says. He suggests questions like, “How did that go from your perspective?” or “What do you think I might have done differently?”

Press for examples

To get the most out of the feedback you receive, you may have to ask for specifics. “Sometimes, the person will say, ‘I just think you need to be more assertive or more proactive or more of a team player,’” says Heen. “That’s vague and what we call a label. It’s not very helpful. You have to unpack the label.” To do that, ask probing questions like, “Can you explain what you mean?” “How could I have been more assertive just now?” and “What kinds of things should I do to be more assertive going forward?”

Turn to colleagues

Your boss certainly isn’t the only one qualified to give you feedback. “The people in the meeting with you or reading your spreadsheets are the ones who actually have the information to help you improve,” Heen says. So, when looking for input, don’t just look up the organizational chart, but also left, right, and occasionally down. To kickstart a regular feedback loop with colleagues, offer input on, observations about, and praise for their work as well. “You’ll get more feedback when you’re giving some,” says Batista.

Ask more frequently when you’re remote

It can be particularly hard to get regular feedback while working remotely since physical distance often prevents informal exchanges. So “the onus is on you” to ask for more input, says Batista. Heen’s advice is to “pick up the phone.” Don’t rely on email or instant messages because nuances tend to get lost.

Adapted from “How to Get the Feedback You Need,” on hbr.org, May 15, 2015 (product #H022ZB).

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