When and How to Ask for Feedback

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Some of the recent questions and comments I received reminded me of a few jobs that I have had in the past where I honestly had no idea how I was doing. Or how anyone else was doing. I would show up, do what I thought my job entailed, collect my paycheque and go home. And as un-rocky as that boat was, I would go home at the end of the day oddly unfulfilled. I was never really disappointed in my work but I also was never really proud or excited about it either.

Hello desk destitute, cubicle cheapened, open space strapped, corner office commendable, home den derelict and coffee shop subjugated. My name is Brock Armstrong and I am… not the Workplace Hero. That’s you! You are the hero here. The goal of this podcast is to make you into a Workplace Hero. I am merely the doorman at this skyscraper of knowledge.

After the recent podcast episode about How to Ask For and Get a Raise (which you can find at workplacehero.me/raise) I got some feedback from people looking for more information on how they can really hone in on being the kind of employee who actually deserves and gets a raise. Some of the questions and comments I received reminded me of a few jobs that I have had in the past where I honestly had no idea how I was doing. Or how anyone else was doing. I would show up, do what I thought my job entailed, collect my paycheque and go home. And as un-rocky as that boat was, I would go home at the end of the day oddly unfulfilled. I was never really disappointed in my work but I also was never really proud or excited about it either.

The simple existence of the "like" button on Facebook (and all the other social media equivalents) just proves that above many things, as a society we crave feedback. Whether it is from our parents when we are kids, our teachers while we are in school, our friends or our spouses in the "real world" and of course our bosses at work, we desire feedback and in some cases, we even use it as our fuel or motivation to keep moving forward.

So what happens when we don't get any? What happens when we work hard, hit all our deadlines, nail our deliverables and still get met with silence? Worse yet, what happens when we know we screwed up or that we totally half-assed a project and we don't get chastised, reprimanded or even asked: "is everything ok?"

Well, that is when we need to stand up, gather our courage and march into our boss's office to ask for the feedback we need and likely deserve. But how do we do that?

In an article over at FastCompany.com they say that it is not an easy or natural task, asking for someone’s opinion or evaluation of you and your work, but that it is indeed an essential part of career development. And while we can’t promise that it will be painless, with the proper preparation and the right questions, asking for feedback can be a smooth process.

Before we get into the best times and the best ways to ask for feedback, I want to direct you to the website weightless.me. That's a program that I am working on with my friend Monica Reinagel (AKA the Nutrition Diva) where we teach you to stop dieting and start weighing less. Which means that we will share the tips, tricks, strategies and techniques that we use to help our personal coaching clients achieve a healthy weight and lifestyle without dieting. Because well, dieting sucks and simply doesn't work (not for long anyway). The program closes on July 7 so head over to weightless.me to find out more now… otherwise, you will have to wait until the new year to get in and start weighing less.

Ok. Back to asking for feedback without sounding needy or lame.

Let’s start with the best times to ask for feedback.

Of course, the number one time would be to ask during your annual review. For those of you who haven't had one before, an annual review is a routine and formal process where your boss will evaluate your progress and contributions over the last year (or quarter, depending on where you work). If your company doesn't have a formal review process, you should ask your boss or HR department to set one up for you. If those opportunities don't present themselves naturally, I think asking for feedback once per quarter is super helpful without being super overwhelming.

The next best time to ask would be before an important meeting, presentation, or project. Think of this as an opportunity to be coached or mentored by your boss. After one of these scenarios is also a good time to ask for feedback. It’s a good moment to take a step back, get your manager’s thoughts, and learn from the experience while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind.

And the next best time would be during your day to day. There are usually small moments that occur every day when it's appropriate to ask for feedback, or when your boss will openly give said feedback. This is what we would call "ongoing feedback" and the more often this happens, the more opportunities you have to grow in your career. Plus having this kind of easy interaction with your boss or manager is an indication of a healthy working environment and relationship which has its own rewards.

Now, before we get to how you should go about asking for feedback, I thought we should start with an article at Forbes.com called How Not to Ask for Feedback.

Here is the scenario: your co-worker asks if you’d be willing to look over his latest presentation, and you’re more than happy to. Only, when you get the email from him, all it says is “Good to go, right?” Boo!

A rubber stamp question like that can make you feel worse than if you hadn't been asked in the first place. But, like so many tricky communication issues in the office, this one's much easier to understand when you're on the receiving end. In other words, it's possible your colleague was trying to include you, but because he was rushed, or felt like he'd done a good job already, he phrased his question in a leading way. However, you can see that his communication style (inadvertently or not) makes him come off like he's being a manipulative wiener.

You’ve probably been there, too. Have you ever framed an idea for your team by saying “Can’t we all agree that yudda yudda?” This type of phrasing means that any response other than “yes” puts the other person in the position of having to immediately disagree with yudda yudda. And who doesn’t like yudda?

On the other hand, if you said a simple “What do you think?” Or better yet, a “How could we improve on this?” you’re asking for active engagement—for criticism, for feedback, for innovation—in a way that shows it will be viewed as constructive, not adversarial.

Of course, it may be that you already had made up your mind, and your goal is to get everyone on the same page. You intentionally don’t want to ask a question that solicits a dialogue because you don’t have the time or budget or wherewithal to alter your strategy—but you still want people to buy-in.

That’s fine too, but if that’s the case, why not skip the leading question altogether? Instead, ask for what you need by saying something like this, “Ok, we don’t have the budget for any major changes, so I’d just like to know anything jumps out—for better or worse—so we know where to focus for here on out.”

Or, in the case where that colleague sent you that presentation, he could’ve said: “I’m due to share this later today, but I’ve read it so many times I don’t even know what I’m looking at. Would you mind doing a quick run through for anything I missed?” That way, he’s being honest about the fact that he’s not open to strategic suggestions, but you know your time’s still valuable.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about how you actually should ask for feedback.

When it's time to meet with your boss and review your work, the general question, "How am I doing?" won't get you very far. Mostly because it provokes a simplified, one-word answer and that is not all that helpful for you.

Managers enjoy giving balanced feedback, so give them the opportunity to do so. You can ask ‘what are some things that I did well?’ and ‘what are some things I could have done differently or better?’

You can also ask for details and examples. This will ensure that you know what steps to take and how to improve. For example, if you get feedback saying ‘you could be a stronger communicator,’ you can follow up by saying “screw you, who asked you anyway” Heh… or maybe not. You should actually probably follow up by asking for an example of a time you communicated something effectively and perhaps also a time you had room to improve. This will help you put that feedback into action.

It’s important to ask both open-ended questions and specific questions, so you can get a true and thorough understanding of your boss’s outlook.

Karin Hurt, the author of Overcoming an Imperfect Boss and a former Fortune 15 executive at Verizon Wireless, recommends asking these questions.

1. What specifically can I do to better support our team’s mission?

2. If your boss were to give me one piece of advice what would that be?

3. Who should I be working with more closely?

4. Which parts of my style concern you the most?

5. Specifically, what do I need to work on to be ready for (insert the job or assignment you’re most interested in here)?

One other thing, before we get to your homework, that you should consider is who you should be asking for feedback from.

You don’t just work with your boss, so it’s important to make sure you’re the feedback you’re seeking out is well rounded. Approach all sorts of people. Speak to your boss, reach out to coworkers, engage with clients, and even try communicating with competitors. If you have contacts in competing companies, casually ask them, what did you think of this strategy? Or what do you think of this product we just launched? They may tell you when you’re onto something worthwhile, or something they envy about your company or projects. There is definitely more than one way to go about getting the feedback you need to become the awesome employee you want to be.

Ok - now on to your homework!

This week I want you to ask for some feedback from someone whose opinion you truly value. It doesn't have to be a boss or a manager or even someone higher up than you at work. Heck, it doesn't even have to be at work. I just want you to practice setting up, asking for and listening to feedback. Remember what you learned on this podcast episode about asking clear questions that don't elicit one-word answers and certainly don't start the conversation with "I'm doing pretty well in this position, eh?" You want real feedback so ask real questions. After you have done this a few times for practice and to spur improvement, you will be certain to wow them when it's time to hit your boss up for that quarterly review.

One last thing. If you ask for feedback and it happens to be negative, don't despair! Constructive criticism is often the only way we learn about our weaknesses—without it, we can't improve. When we're defensive, instead of accepting and gracious, we run the risk of missing out on this important insight. Remember, feedback is not easy to give and it's certainly not easy to receive, but it will help us now and in the long run.

Now, go make this week feedback worthy.


Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated, and recorded by me Brock Armstrong in Vancouver Canada. Logo by Ken Cunningham and music from my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats.

When and How to Ask for Feedback
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