The best ways to ask for feedback at work
It happens both ways. People dread receiving feedback – but they also dread giving it. Typical feedback conversations, like annual performance reviews, are dreaded by all. For instance, in a 2015 survey of 2,058 US workers (HBR paywall), over a third (37%) of bosses reported they are uncomfortable giving direct feedback/criticism about their employee’s performance that might draw a prickly response.
Managers hate these conversations because they are not sure what kind of feedback the employee wants or needs, and employees hate them because any criticism stings. Researchers found that receivers’ heart rates jumped – indicating moderate or extreme stress – during feedback situations. Hence, much workplace feedback, such as performance reviews, is just a series of polite statements, with few concrete suggestions for improvement.
Yet feedback is vital – it is two-way communication, which is vital to good organizational culture and performance. Feedback is actually central to life, used by every intelligent life form to survive. In line with this, research has found about 87% of employees want to ‘be developed’ in their job, but unfortunately only one third say they have actually received the feedback they need to engage and improve. So how can the process of feedback be improved?
Different feedback models
Feedback can take many forms in organizations. Key performance indicators (KPIs) and other quantitative data are perhaps the most recognizable kind of feedback, especially during performance reviews. But conversational feedback — for example, a quick chat over coffee — counts too. Indeed, just as leaders should think carefully about the KPIs that guide behavior on their teams, they should consider the patterns of verbal feedback that guide their teams to improve – and also the unwritten ground rules that determine acceptable behavior in the local workplace.
Many managers use the ‘sandwich model’ for giving feedback. This model involves starting and ending with a compliment while slipping criticism in the middle, hoping to make the criticism palatable while still offering guidance. This was just one of 35 feedback techniques studied – and none was effective at creating lasting behavior change. Nevertheless, the Dale Carnegie approach still seems relevant: “Begin in a friendly way,” as he recommends in his classic book, How to win friends and influence people.
Seek advice rather than feedback
Minimize using the word “feedback.” The word carries a lot of baggage. People can interpret feedback as a negative concept. So try using the word “advice” where you can. It is a warmer and more welcoming word, an invitation to the other person to contribute their expertise or knowledge:
Providing advice puts a person in a merging state of mind, which stimulates a linking of one’s own identity with another party’s.”
This is the view of Prof. Robert Cialdini, author of Pre-suasion – a Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, p. 206. Not always appropriate in a work situation, but it’s worth using this technique where you can as a softer way of seeking the opinion of the other person.
You can also lead with caring statements like:
I’m saying this because I believe in you and want you to succeed.”
This matters to me because I only want to ensure we perform well as a team.”
Asking for feedback is best for both giver and receiver
An article in the s+b newsletter discussed how New York University research found that when seeking feedback, asking for feedback is more effective than giving it. The research found that asking for feedback results in continuous improvement, smarter decision making and stronger teams. Asking for feedback is the best way to minimize any potentially nasty criticism because if offers both the receiver and the giver much more psychological safety than a giver-led approach. This safety is critical during feedback conversations because our brains are more able to perform complex cognitive functions when feeling under less pressure.
Ask often for feedback
A serious drain on team performance can happen when a manager reacts too slowly to problems caused when a team member performs below expectations. Frequent feedback allows people to change their behavior more quickly than after intermittent conversations. Frequent feedback requests also shorten the time between activities and feedback, so a manager’s memory of recent events is fresher and less biased by time. By generating frequent requests for feedback from employees, a manager will be able to improve employee and team performance.
However, don’t criticize too quickly. If you intend to criticize, you might be better to wait overnight to give enough time to tone down unnecessarily sharp comments.
Start small and be specific
Bosses can begin by asking for feedback on low-level topics, such as the ergonomics of the office, asking for comment on some action the boss had undertaken, or something common to the work group. The aim is to get people used to giving feedback in response to questions. When managers and supervisors take the first step, they signal to their team that asking is important. The low-stakes questions help build a sense of trust from their team members. The opportunity to feel heard boosts their status, makes them feel more included, and gives them a greater sense of autonomy. This also empowers them to give better feedback, replacing brittle smiles with more honest comments.
The research found if both parties ask for specific feedback, it will be richer and more informative than if they just ask “How am I doing?” or “What can I do better?” For instance, you can say, “What do you think?” about a specific issue or problem involving the employee.
Researchers say it is up to employees to equip their managers with the right kinds of questions – a help-them-help-you approach to feedback. These can include “Could you please give feedback on my presentation skills?” or “Should I have spoken up sooner in yesterday’s meeting?”
This helps managers avoid ‘kitchen-sinking,’ in which you give one piece of criticism, and then you pile heaps of other matters on top of that. When employees ask for explicit feedback, they give their manager clearer boundaries. Employees can take note of this.
An added benefit of asking explicitly is that employees can choose the level at which they prefer feedback. Feedback can cover the spectrum from abstract to concrete, and research has shown people have individual differences in the levels they prefer. For example, if someone wants to improve their presentation skills, a high-level question might be “What were the goals I should have considered when presenting?” and a low-level question could be “Did I talk too fast?” The first deals more with the why, the second with the how or what. If employees can tailor their feedback request to their preferred level of response, they will be more likely to process and retain the information.
Team leaders can use this technique of explicitly asking for feedback with questions that expand the conversation. For instance, a boss can ask a direct report to describe a few of her long-term goals, and then facilitate with open-ended questions like: What steps are necessary to get there? and What about that future is different from the present? Getting the employee to actively imagine her own growth and create a better future can produce self-motivation that leads to rapid, lasting behavior change.
Make it easier for your boss to give you negative feedback
If your manager or supervisor doesn’t offer feedback about how you can improve your skills, try to make it easier for them, advises Deborah Grayson Riegel (HBR paywall). Start by giving negative feedback about yourself to them. This will show you are serious. Say something to your boss like, “I find it difficult to sort out the important from the urgent, so I’d like to get better at ensuring important things aren’t left overlooked. Do you have any thoughts on how I could do it?” You could also tell your boss that you want to improve in, say, 3 performance areas this year and that you’d like their feedback on what the areas should be. Ask, “Would you please help me keep this commitment I’ve made to myself?” That way, they can think of their feedback as helping you make good on a promise, not as hurting your feelings.
Make feedback a habit
The feedback habit is important for both the giver and the receiver. Simply taking time, on a regular basis to have a focused, one-on-one conversation about issues, challenges, opportunities and strategy. Ideally do this weekly or every two weeks, at the very least. In this way you can dramatically improve the employee-manager relationship and make employees feel more engaged, valued and loyal. More than just a passing conversation, these one-on-ones must be structured and scheduled, but also brief and focused.
In work situations where asking for feedback is customary:
- Givers can ask permission to give explicit feedback,
- Receivers can understand the giver’s intent,
- Both can enjoy more accurate feedback, fewer perceived threats, and stronger learning.
We should all grow more comfortable with the uncomfortable, for the sake of personal and organizational growth.