How do you get feedback? Even when you want feedback, getting reliable feedback is hard. The person sitting across from you isn’t always able to give you something helpful.
This is a conundrum that lots of people face, especially in the workplace. When dealing with your boss, you want her to be able to tell you where you should focus to become better. When dealing with your reports, you want them to give you an accurate picture of how they feel, not one that will just placate you.
This is an issue I’ve been trying to get better at for years. I just didn’t get what to do. Luckily, I’ve stumbled across an approach in Tasha Eurich’s Insight, which I’ll share here.
The core idea is specificity—narrowing the feedback space. If you read enough articles on 1-1s or feedback, you’ll find this advice. Typically, it’s in the form of asking more specific questions.
When my reports don’t have topics for our 1-1s, I default to a question of the week. Until recently, I’d ask questions like this:
What is getting in the way of you being more successful?
It’s not a bad question. It has some specificity, in the sense that it guides the direction of the following conversation. It can be made more specific by providing a time period.
Over the last two weeks, what has been getting in the way of you being more successful?
A specific period of time helps make the question more concrete. Answers are less broad and abstract. Instead, they tend to start with more specific examples of something that occurred. This is much more tangible as a starting point for the conversation.
Let’s now look at Eurich’s approach towards getting feedback. She’s an advocate of things such as 360 feedback, but the gem in her book is this thing that she calls the RIGHT Feedback Process.
The idea is that all feedback (and all sources of feedback) are not created equal: we have to choose the RIGHT people, ask them the RIGHT questions, and use the RIGHT process to get the kind of valuable information that leads to actionable insight.
—Tasha Eurich, Insight
This is a much more thorough way to apply specificity towards getting feedback. It helps us focus in on the feedback we’re hoping to find.
Although Eurich first talks about finding the right people, we’ll first look at asking the right questions.
The focus here is to figure out what you want specific topic you want feedback on. A question such as, “How am I doing as a manager?” is too broad for someone to be able to answer well.
Eurich says to come up with a working hypothesis about how others perceive you. A personal example—I think that I come off as aggressive and impatient when discussing an idea or concept that I believe I already understand.
This would then become the focus of my feedback-seeking conversation. I’d want to ask if my perception matches up with the other person’s experience.
If you don’t already have a hypothesis to focus your feedback, you can consider aspects of yourself such as your ambitions or habits. You can also start with broad topics from others, such as topics from 360 feedback.
Once you know what you want feedback on, you then need to figure out who you will get feedback from. This is specificity applied to your sources of feedback.
There are two categories of people that you don’t want to get feedback from.
The first, unloving critics, are those who will criticize everything that you do. These people are unable to give useful feedback because they can only give one type of feedback.
The second, uncritical lovers, will never criticize you. This might be because they genuinely love or respect you. It might be because they’re afraid to criticize you. Again, they can’t give useful feedback because they are unable to give critical feedback.
The kind of people you want to get feedback from are loving critics—the people who will be honest with you and want you to succeed. There are a few qualities that you want to look for:
- mutual trust
You want to know that the other person has your best interests at heart. This doesn’t necessarily have to be someone that you are close with.
- exposure to your behavior
Your critic cannot give you feedback if they don’t witness the behavior that you want feedback on. They must have sufficient exposure to your behavior before they are able to say something meaningful.
- knows what success looks like
Your critic must be knowledgeable in the area that you want feedback on. Someone can’t advise you on a topic if they don’t understand the topic themselves.
- can and will be brutally honest
Find people who have told you tough truths or have raised and handled tough issues.
Your loving critics should feel like the right people to ask. If they don’t feel right, find someone else—even if the person checks the boxes above.
Finally, design a process that will enable your critics to give you useful feedback. A mistake that I commonly make is asking for feedback on the spot—it’s hard for someone to give you a helpful answer if they’ve only had 10 seconds to think.
Instead, you first want to get buy-in. Have a quick talk with each of your critics to explain the context of the feedback you’re interested in. Explain that you’d like feedback about when you are and aren’t demonstrating the behavior that you want feedback on.
Importantly, tell them that this isn’t just a small favor. Have them think about it before accepting—don’t let them accept out of politeness.
Then, determine how your critics will determine and share their feedback. That is, determine an appropriate window of time for them to observe you. Decide how often you will talk to discuss their feedback for you.
Altogether, this framework should help you get more reliable feedback. By identifying your specific topic and sources of feedback, then creating appropriate space to generate feedback, you’ll help ensure that the feedback you get is meaningful.