Whether you’re offering feedback or receiving it, the entire process can be rife with challenges. At its worst, poor feedback can be personally attacking, laced with opinion, or hard to make actionable; but at its best, feedback serves as the guidance we need to become better at our work and for ourselves.
Feedback is a topic about which we consistently field questions from alumni. For this month’s alumni advice column, we’re focusing on one game-changing aspect of the feedback process: learning how to ask for the feedback you need.
We asked our Alumni Career Advisers this question: How do you ask for honest, critical feedback from your managers, colleagues, or direct reports?
Lauren Cerney (‘12), who works in media strategy in marketing, suggests asking for feedback, “Early and often! I schedule feedback intervals with my direct reports and managers to get their feedback regularly in-between review periods. I also find that giving thorough feedback on a regular basis begets good feedback in return so I try to provide constructive commentary regularly to encourage informal responses at work.”
Specificity is a big theme when asking for feedback. Cary Lambert (’13), who works in strategy and brand management in esports, explains, “I think the important thing with asking for honest feedback is to be specific with the type of feedback you’re looking for. Generally asking for “feedback” leaves the ball in the hands of your manager or the person you’re asking. Instead, try centering the question around something specific you’re looking to get feedback or improve on. Oftentimes, the person you’re asking may not even know you’re looking for improvement or feedback in that particular space, and won’t give you advice in the area you need. Always be direct!”
Brad McRae (‘87), who works in drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry, knows how feedback can turn into something even greater. “Just asking for feedback can make it difficult for colleagues and managers to give you something actionable. Try asking for input on something specific that you just did – like a presentation or a project that just concluded. You might consider framing this in a “2×2”. What were two things in my presentation that you thought were very effective? What were two things that I could have done better? Over time your manager and colleagues will learn that you want this input and they will begin providing feedback without being asked. It also fosters a culture of continuous learning and development where providing input isn’t something special, it’s just the way you work together.”
Contributing to a culture of feedback within your organization is important too. Maggie Sandy (‘16), an events and marketing manager working in nonprofits, advises on using the 1:1 for regular feedback. “I usually take the initiative to meet with my manager one-on-one to keep conversations open and honest. I find that when I take the initiative to ask for critiques or advice on my performance, my manager is more than happy to share their thoughts. It also puts me in a position to show my desire for growth and expansion in my position, so they don’t have any doubts about where my heart is! I also do the same things with other colleagues. I’ll make meetings to deconstruct a project, how it went, what could be improved, and provide genuine feedback for the next time the team has a similar project.”
Drew Dayton (‘03), an educator and coach, believes “the setting where you ask the question(s) is as, if not more, important than the question itself when attempting to get the most honest, critical feedback from your managers, colleagues, or direct reports. The objective is to make your colleague as comfortable as possible so that there aren’t additional barriers to them giving you their honest feedback. I usually ask them for an early breakfast. I find it best to “get to them” before their days fill up with all the things that can sway their opinion one way or another.
“I hate to sound like a Nike commercial, but my advice is just do it!” encourages Mallory Allred (’16, MA ’21), who works in data analytics in higher education. “The first time that you ask someone for direct feedback is, to be completely honest, pretty scary and uncomfortable. Yet, as with most things, it’s something that gets easier each time you do it.
We all know the experience of hearing feedback and feeling defensive, and Mallory is no different, “my initial response to any critical feedback is defensiveness. It takes practice to temper that response and it takes time to sit with feedback while determining next steps.” One way to help this part of the process is to determine “boundaries for yourself and others around the feedback process. For example, if you work on a small team and are comfortable with feedback being shared in the group, then name that. Or, if you’d like feedback to be shared privately, name that. The key to determining these boundaries for me was to do a bit of soul searching and identify how I respond to critical feedback so I could determine the best scenarios for me to receive it.”
Finally, Mallory speaks to the importance of exercising self-compassion when receiving tough feedback, “It’s also important to practice giving yourself grace when you hear critical feedback. Don’t ruminate on the feedback someone has given you and don’t judge yourself for how you’re internally responding to feedback. Take the gift of feedback that someone else has offered you and try to change your behavior if their feedback is in accordance with your own values. We’re all works in progress, so be gentle with yourself.”