Getting feedback

I had a great conversation with one of my favorite former clients. Ryan is a brilliant engineer and leader, intense, full of passion. He brought his whole self to coaching, soaking up every bit of insight there was to get out of the process and putting it into action immediately. A highlight for him was the "360-feedback" process, where I interview his direct reports, peers, and boss to learn what he's great at and what he should get better at.

He got a pretty big job about 2 years ago. When we spoke, he bemoaned to me how hard it is to get feedback. "I always ask people to give me feedback," he said. "I tell them if I don't get feedback I don't learn. I give them examples of when I learned from my mistakes. I try everything I can think of. They won't give me honest feedback. Asking doesn't really work."

Feedback. The only way to improve in sports, in life and certainly in your career is to get regular doses of feedback from multiple sources, digest the messages, and put into practice new behavior.

You may already know that important decisions often get made behind closed doors, and this is also true for decisions about whether you are ready to take on a major role or get a big promotion. Often the people talking about you don't know you that well. They just know your reputation, what others say about you. Most often you don't get to hear their discussion about you, you will only know that you are getting the roles you want or you are not. So getting the real scoop is crucial for your career progression.

And yet, it turns out that people don't like to give you feedback. Even those tough managers who say "I say it like it is" regularly shy away from telling people the important things that are getting in their way. And don't even ask about CEOs - they never get any feedback!

There are many reasons for this: they don't want to demoralize you; they worry that they are the only ones who think this; they think you won't listen or you will get defensive. And, of course, there is plain old interpersonal squeamishness - it can be hard to have honest conversations.

As I told Ryan, most people don't get a coach. They have to figure out for themselves how to improve and how to get the real skinny on how others perceive them. Even if you do get a coach, usually it's only for a brief period in your career. Everyone needs to learn how to get this feedback for themselves.

So how can you get the people around you to tell it to you straight?

Try these three tips:

1) Close your mouth. Nobody will give you feedback if the first thing out of your mouth is "No I don't" or "I don't mean it that way" or any other way you explain away or negate what they say to you. The best way to respond to any feedback is to listen and nod. When you do talk, you can say: "Thank you for bringing this up. Can you tell me more about that?"

Sometimes they might be wrong. They might have misread your intention, or they will have missed the point. So what? Is your goal to explain to them the error of their ways, or to learn something about yourself? You can explain later; right now just listen.

2) Use feedback to get more feedback. Clever, right? If you have a reasonably trusting relationship with someone, you can say more or less comfortably "I've heard that people perceive I don't communicate enough to keep everyone on the same page. Have you heard that about me or do you perceive that about me?" If the answer is yes, see point number 1. If the answer is no... well, don't take no for an answer. You could ask: "Imagine you could see something like this from others' points of view, could you make that case for me?" Or, "who do you think I should check this out with who would agree with that point of view and be willing to be honest with me?"

If you break the news to them first, they are more likely to open up and talk about it.

3) Don't ask for feedback, ask for suggestions. No matter how easy you make it for them, no matter how much you nod and aggressively listen, a lot of very good people don't want to get into "feedback" because one way or another it feels to them like "criticism." Instead, you could ask for suggestions. For example, "I want to make sure that I communicate enough, in the right way, to help everyone stay on the same page. Do you have any suggestions for me on how I can do that better?" That takes them off the hook. They can share suggestions without concern about criticizing or offending you.

Ryan promised me he is going to be waiting eagerly for this newsletter so he can try these ideas and give me feedback on the suggestions for getting feedback! I would love to hear from all of you: did these suggestions help? Are there other ideas you have for getting others to give you feedback?

What to do once you get feedback

Let's say you do entice people to 'fess up and you get the real scoop on you. You might find out, for example, that people think you tend to throw verbal landmines into meetings, and yet you are not direct enough in conversations and people have to try to interpret your meaning. On the bright side, they also think you are amazing at your functional area, set a very clear and inspiring vision, and that you always take into account the best thing for the company when you make decisions.

What do you do with that? If you have gotten some suggestions from people, you can start there for your development plan. Or, you might have ideas of your own. Either way, pick one or two new behaviors to start or stop doing. They have to be changes that people can see, that way the "change" will be out there in the physical world, not just in your head.

Once you've tried the new behavior for a few weeks, you can discuss it with the folks who gave you feedback. You get a lot of credit for that: first of all, it shows that you take their input seriously. Second, when you show that you do something with the information, they'll give you more feedback in the future. Finally, discussing it cues them to notice that you are making changes - they will look at you with fresh eyes and notice your changes more quickly.

You can give them this speech: "You and I chatted a bit about a month ago and you gave me some great insight and feedback, which I appreciate. In addition to a few complimentary things, you mentioned that I tend to make cutting comments in meetings, and also that I am not direct enough in one-on-ones so people have to guess what I mean. I have been working on these two things. I have tried to banish cutting remarks in meetings and make sure I phrase my point of view constructively. I have also tried to be more clear when I talk to people and to ask them "does this make sense; am I being clear?" so we can get rid of any confusion on the spot. Let me ask you, have you noticed these changes?"

They may have noticed, they may not have. Eventually they will, more quickly as you gently point it out.

Remember, people cannot see what you think or what you "mean." They only see what you say and what you do. So show them different actions, follow up now and again, and I guarantee you will accelerate your path to where you want to go!