In the past few weeks I’ve been getting a ton of feedback, both solicited and unsolicited about my business and some projects I’m working in. It has me thinking about the notion of feedback and what to do with it. In fact, it reminded me of a time in my career when I had just left management consulting and was starting in Human Resources. It seemed like all I ever did was listen to what other people thought of me and everything I was doing. Initially I loathed these conversations because I made the mistake of taking them personally and thinking I had to take action based on the feedback. All of the feedback drained me, made me question myself, made me resent the people giving the feedback, and generally bummed me out. Finally, I wised up and realized what a gift feedback actually is and how to deal with it, even though its still a bitch!

It is a gift

If you solicit feedback it can be incredibly helpful. Feedback can help you see around corners, anticipate needs, and avoid problems. If you are launching a new project at work, knowing people’s objections, questions, and suggestions in advance is super helpful. If you are looking to improve your effectiveness as a leader, knowing how you occur (what their perception is, how things you do/say "land" for them) helps you see yourself in ways that you otherwise couldn’t. Getting this sort of information early helps you reduce risk, avoid mistakes, increase quality, and your overall probabilistic odds of success. 

If you get unsolicited feedback, it too is a gift. Simply knowing where you or your work stand with someone is incredibly useful, even if you are not well positioned. Knowing the truth, no matter how ugly, gives you more information to make better decisions. Just like in customer service, it is very difficult to fix a situation or improve overall if you don’t know when there is an issue. Ignorance is bliss, until it isn’t, and you have one of those birds hitting a windshield at 70 MPH moments. Thud. For instance, you may find out that someone really is against a proposal you will be presenting next week. If you know this before “the meeting” you could speak with them in advance to address their concerns, negotiate a trade for their support, or lobby others to get votes around the table in favor of your approach. 

It's also a bitch

What I find hard about feedback is not taking it personally. No matter how much I tell myself that feedback is a gift and it is making me better, I often get stuck feeling crummy about myself or my work. That’s where you’ve gotta be tough and have thick skin. People, sometimes with the intention of being helpful, can provide damning, intense, even vicious feedback that can hurt, if you let it. Don’t let it. Their feedback is simply their opinion of how they see things based on their world view and experiences. They aren’t right, nor are they wrong. They just have a viewpoint. But if you are like me you’ll get worked up inside and forget this for a moment. You may want to debate with them, or justify and explain why something is. These are indicators, like warning lights on the dashboard of a car, that you’re taking it personally. 

How to ask for feedback

How you ask for feedback matters. Ever heard that saying “shit in, shit out?” It applies here too. When you aren’t clear with the person you are asking feedback from you’ll get a mess in return that creates more work for you, isn’t helpful, and might upset you even further. So make sure you do the following:

  • Set context - give them background detail so they know what the overall situation is, what you are trying to achieve, and the constraints.
  • Be specific - be explicit in what you want them to do and provide back. If they are reviewing a document, video, plan, or even your style in leading meetings, what should they look for, or what perspective or “hat” should they wear? (e.g. think of how this announcement will resonate with our customers) 
  • Make it easy - give them everything (background materials, feedback form or checklist, due date, etc.) they need in one place (e.g. an email or physical or digital folder)
  • Ask for both - often feedback we get is always in the “what could be better” vein so make sure to ask both what could be better and also what they really like about it (this helps you know what to keep and highlight, and makes digesting the improvement suggestions easier)

How to receive feedback

Here are some tricks for how to be open in receiving feedback:

  • Just listen - if your mouth is open you aren’t learning
  • Ask questions - probe further to learn more and make sure they’re providing feedback on everything you want to know about 
  • Take notes - capture it on paper. It shows respect for the person giving you feedback and often there is far too much to remember
  • Reiterate - acknowledge the feedback by summarizing it and repeating it back to the other person, so you and they are sure you understand 
  • Avoid conversations in your head - don’t try to decide if you agree/disagree with their feedback, if you will act on it, or how you will address it. Keep your focus on deeply understanding what they are saying. You can do the rest later.

Other tips

Here are a few other things to keep in mind about feedback:

  • Set up a call - feedback is much more rich, useful, and specific when given in a conversation. Yet most of the time we get it via email or text. Don’t make that mistake. Dust off your seldom used phone and talk through their thoughts, while taking good notes. You’ll also be able to probe and test solutions and ideas in real time. Better yet, meet face to face.
  • Ask believable people - would you take money advice from your most broke friend? Or dieting advice from your most overweight friend? I doubt it. Be selective about who you ask advice for - people that are believable. What’s that saying about opinions….? 
  • Many perspectives - think of the persona and perspectives represented in the feedback. If you’re launching a website that is going to be used by adults aged 22-65 but you only ask for feedback from your 20-something staff you’ll miss out on feedback like the font being too small, the look/feel not being credible, or missing out on the entire solution. Make sure you have feedback that represents multiple perspectives, which often means asking people who are very different from you. 
  • Go outside - don’t limit yourself to just co-workers at your firm. Ask outsiders that you trust. They’ll come with more ideas, “dumb questions” (that are very often quite illuminating), and fresh eyes. Don’t forget to protect proprietary and confidential information in the process if you do go outside. 
  • Separate out solutions from problems - many people in the process of giving feedback and trying to be helpful, can collapse problems and solutions. Rather than say “the music in this video is depressing and creepy” they’ll say “you should use XYZ music track for this video.” Listen for what doesn’t work and then consider many solutions to address the problem, not just what comes to mind from that person. 
  • Use your best judgement - just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to act on it. There may be many reasons why you can’t or don’t want to address it, and that is okay. So long as you have fully heard them out and considered the feedback. I made this mistake for years - thinking I had to address every bit of feedback. You just need to hear it. 
  • Say thanks - people who give up their time and risk some of their relationship capital (by potentially offending you) to give you candid feedback need to be thanked. You want to create a pattern where people you trust and value feel comfortable giving you helpful feedback, even if you didn’t ask for it. So make sure they feel appreciated, heard, and if you do make changes based on their feedback point it out later on - they’ll feel like owners in your work and career.

Being smart about soliciting and receiving feedback, and determining what to do about it, will make you more situationally aware, reduce your chance of making needless mistakes, and build a legion of fans who feel heard, included and appreciated. 

Photo Credit: The Art of Giving Great Feedback]. Retrieved from