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Getting Good at Getting Feedback

post # 126 — July 6, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing post

Our progress at work and in life depends on what other people think of us. What we think of ourselves is irrelevant data

There are a thousand things I wish somebody had told me early on in my professional (and personal) life, that I needed to work at improving and never knew about because I didn’t know how I was coming across, or what the other person’s expectations were. All too frequently, I only found out the hard way.

People very rarely tell you the truth about yourself, which makes it even more important that you develop ways to get feedback on how you REALLY come across to the rest of the world. (In many ways, I still don’t know the real truth about this.)

Even when they do try to get feedback, some people tend to wait until the end of things (a year, a project, an affair) to solicit feedback about what they COULD HAVE done better (or differently) This is all way too late.

The real key to success is being able to ask for feedback on a relationship, and act on it, while it is still going on.

Remember that people NEVER tell you the truth on formal occasions. It’s a rare boss that’s going to be completely candid during a formal appraisal, and a rare client that reveals something dramatically new or surprising in a formal feedback system. And you’re certainly not going to say “OK, darling, let’s sit down and make a list of what we don’t like about each other!”

If you’re ever going to develop the skill of getting feedback (and it is a skill) then you need to find ways to make it informal. Get out of the office to have this conversation. (Or if it’s a personal relationship, break the routine and do something like going out for walk together!)

As marketers have discovered with formal focus groups, if you really want to get at something useful, then you need to find out is not what people have to say when they are in a logical, analytical mode, but what they FEEL about you. Scary stuff, but absolutely essential to know this if you are to get on in life!

Try subtle, gentle language: “If I had to change one thing about how we interact, what would you recommend we work on?” Find a friend or colleague, at work or in your social crowd, who you think will tell you the truth about yourself. Some clients, over a drink, will give you an honest and helpful answer to that question. So will some subordinates.

Good or bad, you need to take time to think about what people say, avoid reacting in real time (REALLY tough!) and internalize it. You can neither ignore it nor overreact to it.

Most importantly, if you’re going to ask, be ready to change.

Anyone else got some tips about how you get good at what the Scots poet Robert Burns called “the power to see ourselves as others see us”? (Many people know that line, but how many know the rest of the poem? It’s about seeing an insect crawl out of the wig of a fine lady all dressed up!)

We all know we SHOULD be good at getting feedback. But how, exactly, DO you really get good at this?


Jennifer Davis said:

Great post! I find it is easier to get people to open up with candid feedback if you start by commenting on something you could have done better and then ask them to respond. You come out of a meeting and remark to a trusted collegue, “I think I could have done a better job keeping the group on task today. You seem to do this well. What’s your secret? What am I doing wrong?” This puts people at ease and communicates that you really do want to learn and improve from their advice.

The first step is realizing who you want to emulate (whose feedback really matters to you) and identifying some specific thing you want to improve as a way to get a conversation going. You also have be willing to give them difficult feedback as well.

A colleague and I once had a weekly tradition of sending each other one compliment and one “thing to work on” that we had observed during that week. I highly respect him, so often it was hard to think of things to criticize, but I think it helped us be more sensitive to how we were being perceived and how we could be more effective.

posted on July 7, 2006

Ed Lee said:


You raise some very interesting points but one you have only implicitely tackled is how badly people give feedback in the first place. One only has to look at a blog or listen to a podcast to see that too many people offer up platitudes as constructive feedback – “love your blog, keep up the good work” is as useless as a paper bag in a monsoon.

On the other hand “i wish you’d go deeper on XYZ rather than focusing on ABC” is much more useful for all involved.

I think it stems from the rampant consumerism and number of brand extentions in our society. Instead of investing our time in a certain product or service to make it better, we vote with our wallets and simply move on until someone gets it right.


posted on July 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Jennifer and Ed – what your two comments have in common is the thought that you get the best, most useful feedback from people with whom you have a relationship. Those without a rellationship with you just move on, as Ed says.

Actually, this becomes a little self-fulfilling, doesn’t it? Beecause you probably build and reinforce relationships with people by aski9ng for the feedback, thus creating the virtuous circle!

posted on July 7, 2006

Curt Wehrley said:


I have some feedback for you! Here’s another version of your first paragraph:

“Our progress at work and in life depends largely on what other people think of us. What we think of our own performance is important; however, our own view of our performance is both limited and biased.”

I think you are spot-on with the rest of your post. My additional thoughts:

For some, the road to excellence can pass through times & places when people don’t fully approve of your performance. If you’re doing something different or exceptional in comparison to the norm, virtually no one may like what you’re doing [at first].

Also, not everyone is a valid judge of how well you’re doing, so choose your sources of feedback wisely.

posted on July 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Aw, Curt, now you’ve gone and ruined a great one-liner by pointing out that it’s not accurate! Gee whiz, I wish you weren’t right in your amendment.

Your also correct in your contribution to the analysis that (a) some negative feedback is just false- you’re just not being appreciated and (b) – you need feedback from the RIGHT people.

I’d add one more little “trick” that has helped me. if I ask people what THEY think of me, they are ususally polite (well, usually.)

But if I ask them if they’d be willing to tell me what OTHER people say about me, I give them the opportunity to say things without putting them in the awkward position of criticizing me to my face. Quite often, they say “Well, now you’ve asked, David, there are SOME PEOPLE – not me of course, David, who think you could improve in these areas.”

We can then discuss it without raising the emotional temperature on either side. Works for me – try it out!

Anyone else got an approach they use with clients, bosses, peers, subordinates, loved ones?

posted on July 7, 2006

roman rytov said:

Maybe I missed this obvious point in the post and the comments but it’s vitally important, when providing efficient feedback, to adjust it to the “feedbackee’s” level of readyness to accept the feedback. The theme, the tone, the level of rigor, the proportion of positive things to others, needed additional development – all they depend on a) how the person is seeking a feedback and b) how (s)he respects your opinion. Being in the skins of one who gives feedback and one who receives I agree with David that providing good feedback isn’t an easy task at all.

posted on July 8, 2006

Eric Boehme said:


I learned about perception early in my career, but the hard way. I know I am not alone.

I thought I was doing a good job servicing sales in my IT management role. One day, the CEO pulled my into a conference room and told me that the sales force was tired of my obstinate and obstructive behavior. He basically told me I was failing at the very thing I thought I was excelling at.

I rejected his assessment immediately, but over the course of time I could not help but wonder what the sales force was thinking about me as we worked together. I started to work harder at being more supportive and asking for feedback.

This was a career defining moment. The lesson learned was that I had to be willing to accept the way I was perceived no matter how much it hurt.

Now, many years later, I ask leading questions to try to get feedback. I might say to a member of my staff “Yes, it has been a challenge to win back the trust of that customer.”

The employee responds, “Since you have been working with the customer, we have noticed a big change. We all appreciate what you are doing.”

It is genuine feedback. I have received positive and negative feedback this way. It takes work to get real feedback. And it is best when it is a one on one conversation where the person feels completely comfortable being honest. Creating that environment is my responsibility.

posted on July 8, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Roman – we’re discussing how to get good at receiving feedback, not giving it.

A thought prompted by eric’s comments is that another VERY hard part is facing up to feedback once you have obtained it. In many of my seminars, people complete detailed feedback forms. I will confess that the temptation to look at the summaries and then immediately file the document away is very strong.

Taking the time to think about any

negatives (or ‘less-than-excellent’ comments) requires a lot of self-discipline. It’s a good idea to have a coach to whom you promise to show all your feedback. That way, you can’t hide from facing up to your weaknesses (which is what all of us would really prefer to do.)

posted on July 8, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I have used two tools that have helped me in this area:

First, I have adapted a practice from my religious tradition and created an “examination of conscious” for several jobs I have held. Catholics are encouraged to reflect each evening on the various events of the day. In a business context, this has helped me recognize failures of “omission” in my work. At first I reviewed this every hour. It really helped.

The other tool is a “Total Quality Checklist”, shamelessly harvested from “Quality is Personal” by Roberts and Sergesketter. The idea is to mark “defects” as they occur. The more stringent the item examined, the better the results—at least for me.

A habit of examining one’s work/life on a regular basis is a great help in self-improvement.

posted on July 9, 2006

Lora Banks said:

Yes, you are so right. So much of our learning and growth can come from being able to listen to the feedback, perspective, and impact we are having on others – especially if we can create a space for the feedback to be honest and explicit.

I am a big fan of direct and authentic communication and as a coach and corporate trainer, I realize it is challenging in political environments where there is sensitivity to balances of powers (to say the least).

Here are a few guidelines that I give my clients:

1) Let people know that you are “open for feedback” and be specific.

2) Design the feedback conversation. I don’t know that good feedback “never” happens in a formal environment but I do know that when you can design some ground rules around a feedback conversation it creates both safety and openess.

3) The two design rules I encourage most frequently are (a) for the receiver to agree to only ask clarifying questions. Feedback should not be an opportunity for a debate and (b) In concluding the feedback conversation, the receiver will agree to simply say “thank you for your honest feedback.” This is not the time to make promises or agreements to change. Its already been said here in your blog, not all feedback is useful.

4) Finally, take what is useful and let the other stuff go. I mean, really let it go. Feedback is a gift, a gift to help you improve and grow yourself. No matter the nature of the feedback, find a place in yourself that can really be grateful to the giver for having the courage to honor your feedback request.

With much respect,

Lora Banks CPCC



posted on July 9, 2006

Roman Rytov said:

So I missed not the point but the theme:-) Two things are so congenial that that was easy. I’ve started a discussion on how to give feedback and invite all the participants to join it:


posted on July 10, 2006

Matt Moore said:

Lots of good stuff here so far.

I suppose you could break this down into a series of steps:

1. Eliciting feedback.

Comment: There is a someone I know who asks for feedback on ideas & projects. At first I was relatively honest in terms of good & bad points as I saw them. But this person reacted defensively. They wanted validation, not feedback. So now I just say: “Yes, great idea”. Stating the obvious, you have to want (& show that you want) feedback not validation.

An option for dealing with the general reluctance to be critical to people directly is to get someone else to ask on your behalf.

2. Validating feedback. What are the best ways of doing this? I suppose asking other people “Do I do that?” is one way.

In a client relationship, arguably any negative feedback cannot be dismissed. It may not be accurate (e.g. “X was unresponsive” when X was never asked anything) but the perception must tackled

3. Making improvements.

This is the fun bit & makes the whole exercise more palatable ;-)

posted on July 10, 2006

Steve Farber said:

Someone once said that feedback is a great gift until you get some on ya. I think that every manager/leader nowadays knows that they should get open, honest feedback from…well…360 degrees around them, and, as a result, many have been assessed into a stupor.

But it takes both desire and guts to really make it happen. In other words, I have to want it, and I have to be willing to scare myself in order to get it, because there are few things more frightening than hearing the less-than-perfect truth about ourselves.

Can you teach desire and guts? I’d like to think so. Curious what you think, David.

posted on July 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Steve, this is SUCH a good question that I’d like to begin to answer it in anew blogpost later in the week. Watch this space!

posted on July 11, 2006

jon said:

“Scary stuff, but absolutely essential to know this if you are to get on in life!”

Scary stuff indeed!

You can intellectually know that this is good for you, but it can still be difficult to receive.

When you start to benefit from changes you make based on the feedback you receive, I think it starts to become easier to seek and receive it.

I also believe you need to get formal and informal feedback. Both provide something the other doesn’t.

Thanks David!

posted on July 13, 2006

Steve Arpano said:

What I find frustrating is asking for feedback, and being fluffed off for weeks. After 3 months of being in a “management training” type of role, I asked to meet and review my performance and goals. Nearly 2 months later (YES I kept on him, but not to the point of being annoying). We sat down and all I got from him was “so far so good.” As much as I’d like to think I’m perfect, and don’t we all, I know I need to work on aspects of my career. This is the same guy who gave me “The Radical LEAP” and never read it himself. I did, and re-read it again and again. Maybe this should have told me something about the kind of manager I was dealing with.

posted on July 15, 2006

Prem Rao said:

How do you get good in getting feedback? My take on the 5 steps:

  1. Ask! Don’t miss an opportunity to learn from some one who is better than you at something. It could be just about any one.
  2. Be prepared to change. This is a toughie. As is often said, if you don’t want to do anything based on feedback, don’t ask.
  3. Inform. Keep the giver of the feedback informed of the difficulties you are facing in bringing about change. Not only do they feel you are acting upon their suggestions, they could actually help you to overcome difficulties.
  4. Thank. Keep the giver of the feedback informed of the improvements you have made. It makes them happy that you gained from their feedback.
  5. Share. Tell others of your experiences with feedback. Like you, they too could gain from your failures/successes.

Bit too simplistic? I like to think not.

posted on September 27, 2006