Creating Space for Feedback

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest UniversityFour people holding thought bubble signs

If you’re anything like me, you probably suffer from one, if not both, of the following deficiencies: you either hate to hear anything that remotely sounds like “constructive” (i.e., here are your “opportunities for growth,” or, here are all of the ways you’re screwing up) criticism, or, you think you’re incredibly open and available to all kinds of feedback, when in reality other people see you in very different ways. I will be the first to raise my hand and say that both of these scenarios describe me to a T.

I pride myself on being incredibly open to feedback, on seeking out as much information as I possibly can so that I am always learning and improving. But the reality is, criticism hurts, no matter how self-evolved you are. None of us like to hear about how we’re letting other people down, or that we’re less than perfect. And, I’m quite aware that my colleagues and friends see me in a very different light than I see myself. While I’m not prone to crying fits or emotional outbursts, I have absolutely no poker face (so I’ve been told). What feels like open and receptive to me, quite literally looks like mad or irritated to others.

But here’s the thing. If we’re not listening, if we’re not allowing the perspectives of others into our experiences, then we are quite simply not learning. None of us can be successful on our own. And, as you move up the organizational hierarchy, you will find that people will be even less inclined to speak truth to power and to tell you when you can and should be doing things better or differently.

So, we each need to figure out ways to create space for people to give us honest and authentic feedback. Here are some tips and strategies for you to try out.

Create a Board of Directors. You may have heard about this concept, which has become popular in the mentoring literature in recent years. And while I don’t love it, for that, as it implies a rather transactional, corporate type of relationship that I don’t believe is appropriate to the mentoring experience, I do like it for the feedback process. Think of it as you would a 360 assessment. Include at least one person who is above you in terms of power and influence, several who are on your level, and if you can, a few who are below you. Tell them that they are your feedback board, and that several times a year you will be asking them to let you know the places that you shine and the places that need development.

Don’t Just Give Feedback to Others. If you are in a management or leadership role, it can be tempting to always be the one giving out feedback. After all, that is part of your job. You do at least annual performance reviews, hopefully quarterly check-ins, and in an ideal situation, are having regular one-on-ones with your people. But how often do you ask them to give feedback to you? How often do you ask how you could do better as a manager in order to help them to be better in their roles?

Help Others to Give You Helpful Feedback. One of the reasons that feedback so often falls flat is that it gets wrapped up in personality, instead of about observed behavior or action. Effective feedback in the workplace is not about who you are as a person, it’s about what you are doing that impacts yourself or others. But it’s challenging to do this work when someone asks some version of, “Do you have any feedback for me?” That is far too vague of a question. Instead, think about how you can “hang” the feedback conversation on a specific project or work product. It’s as simple as asking, “On that project, what are 2-3 things that you think I did particularly well? What are 1-2 things that I could have done better or differently?” You have given them the objective, observed behavior to focus on, and taken the personality piece out of the equation.

Ask, The Listen. Finally, whether you are a front-line staff person seeking feedback from your supervisor, or a manager seeking feedback from those you supervise, you need to start to teach people how to interact with you. If, every time I give you a piece of feedback, you get defensive and start to argue with me, I am going to become less and less inclined to give you feedback because I don’t want to get in a fight with you. If, however, you listen respectfully, ask questions for clarification, express gratitude, and then demonstrate that you are willing to reflect on and learn from the feedback, then you have set the stage for a relationship of trust and respect, moving forward.

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