How to Actually Ask for Feedback
How do you solicit and receive feedback as a leader? Do you? How regularly if so?
We require feedback for our growth as leaders. Nothing is more important for our self-awareness than understanding how people view and receive us. We can reflect, take self-assessments, and gain new information every day. But none of that considers how others and our environment see us.
Leaders must also normalize giving and receiving feedback as a routine behavior within the team. Feedback is challenging. It can be awkward to give, hard to receive, and tough to keep as a benevolent gift grounded in love. Feedback is not something that easily flows between people. It must be practiced, prioritized, and reinforced.
So, leaders need to set the example. Feedback will never merely come to us. We must regularly solicit it and seek it out, both for our own growth and to make it an acceptable practice within the team.
But how do we best do that? As stated earlier, simply asking someone for feedback can be awkward, easily resulting in an unproductive conversation where we not only do not receive feedback, but both people walk away from the conversation feeling weird. There are plenty of strategies leaders can use to get feedback, but not all strategies are equal. Some efforts are just words – and words are cheap.
Let’s explore four general “tiers” of strategies on how leaders can (and should) solicit feedback from their people. Bottom line, the deeper the tier (towards tier 4), the more effective the strategy. Through this exploration, I hope that we can, first, use it as an assessment tool to see what strategies we currently use. Am I the leader that often talks about wanting feedback, but in fact does little to nothing to actually get it (remains in tier 1)? And second, I hope this can help us become more intentional about practicing and employing effective feedback-soliciting strategies.
Tier 1: “I Want Your Feedback”
I once had a boss who regularly told everyone on our team that he “wants our feedback and wants us to speak with candor.” And while that message was encouraging, the unfortunate reality was that his desire for feedback ended with those statements. He never did anything beyond that to actually seek our feedback. And we never really gave any to him.
Claims like “I want your feedback” may send positive signals of safety to the team, but do not do anything to really solicit feedback. A boss saying things like this in meetings or even during one-on-one conversations does not create a legitimate opportunity for others to share feedback. If I am a member on your team receiving that message, I may likely be thinking, “Cool, I’d love to give you feedback if you’re that open to it! But how do you want to do this? Are you going to schedule a time and place to do it? And what do you want feedback on? Or are you expecting me to give it to you now? Because I certainly am not ready to deliver quality, well thought out feedback right now.”
Words are cheap. And in the space of getting feedback as a leader, “I want your feedback” is just that – words. Leaders must dive deeper than this surface-level effort to seek feedback and normalize the practice among the team.
Tier 2: "What Feedback Do You Have for Me?"
Here, we do move into the practice of actually seeking feedback by asking, “what feedback do you have for me?” And while we are outright seeking feedback in this tier, which is great, asking for feedback like this can easily leave people with lost, deer-in-the-headlights looks.
If you, as my boss, ask me for feedback in this way, I immediately begin to ask a series of nervous questions to myself:
- “What kind of feedback is she looking for? Like observations about how she interacts with others, carries herself during the day, decisions she makes, organizational systems that she has implemented? Or is she simply looking for how well she just ran this morning’s meeting? I’m not sure what she actually wants from me here.”
- “How honest is he wanting me to be? How genuine of a request for feedback is this? I’m not really sure if our relationship warrants me being super truthful yet.”
- “How self-aware he she right now? Does she have some contextual awareness around her behaviors where my feedback hopefully is not new information? Or would this be the first time she hears this from someone? If so, should I be the person to deliver it? I’m worried this should not come from me for the first time.”
Questions like, “what feedback do you have for me,” though well intended, unfortunately are too broad to welcome any constructive and quality feedback. Yes, it starts to get us into the practice of soliciting feedback but attempts like this tend to leave the person or people we are seeking feedback from more anxious about the situation and not focused on delivering the best feedback possible.
It is a lazy attempt at getting feedback. Leaders must do better and dive into the deeper tiers of seeking feedback.
Tier 3: Seeking Feedback About Specifics
It is prudent to build context around the feedback we are seeking and to start small. Start by asking about specifics, like focused behaviors and events. Narrowing our requests for feedback frames the questions for the people we are asking and enables them to feel more comfortable with the conversation and more willing to offer insight into it.
So, consider focusing our targets for feedback when we ask for it. Examples can include:
- “What are the most and least helpful things I do during our weekly staff meeting to make it a productive event for you and the team?”
- “What is something that I’m not currently doing now that I should to help you be more effective and efficient each day?”
- “What can I improve about my decision-making and how I communicate it to the team and our customers?”
When offered this way, these questions bring focus to the discussion. It encourages the person we are asking to dive deeper into this area and willing to be more honest, creating a productive conversation. Efforts like this repeated over time build safety and trust with those we seek feedback from, which encourages more candor and transparency in the future.
Tier 4: Establish Feedback Rituals
Tier 3 efforts are where we really begin to seek, and likely receive, quality feedback. However, tier 3 efforts can still be irregular, dependent on us asking questions. When we get busy, stressed, or comfortable, we may forget to maintain those efforts. Before we know it, it can become weeks or months since we last sought feedback.
Moreover, the above efforts are in-the-moment behaviors where we initiate a conversation by asking for feedback. But that fails to provide the person we are soliciting feedback from the time to prepare their thoughts to ensure it is well packaged, quality, and well delivered insight. Attempts as discussed so far may leave people feeling unprepared and surprised. And if they do, they become more focused (worried) about themselves and not on the conversation.
So, the final tier of soliciting feedback is to build feedback rituals into your regular battle rhythm. First, doing so ensures that seeking feedback is a routine event, not dependent on us making the effort. Second, it allows the team member(s) that we are seeking feedback from to adequately prepare their comments and prepare for the discussion. Third, it sends clear signals that this is a routine way our team works, normalizing the behavior of giving and receiving feedback across the team.
What is a feedback ritual, then? It can be many things; there is no right or best way. But identify events or opportunities to integrate the flow of feedback into ways that your team already works. A few examples can include:
- Dedicate 10 minutes of your weekly one-on-one meeting with your direct reports to feedback. Exercise your normal one-on-one meeting agenda, but end it with a feedback discussion, where both you and your team member give and receive feedback.
- During the few minutes you use to walk back to your office from the weekly staff meeting, walk with a team member and ask them how the meeting went. Remember to ask specific questions: What went well, what could have gone better, what you as the leader did to help or hinder the meeting. This way, people know that we reflect on the meeting afterward, even if just for a few minutes.
- Use index cards to ask questions for feedback or insight from the team during routine events and collect the series of responses. This also helps keep feedback anonymous if that is desired or the team is not comfortable doing so face-to-face yet.
Not all strategies are equal. The deeper the tier (towards 4), the better the practice, the more quality feedback we receive, and the more normalized the behavior is within the team. But if we are looking to initiate a practice of soliciting feedback, know that we cannot simply jump from nothing to tier 4 and expect quality feedback immediately. It is a process of building safety, establishing trust, and making others comfortable with the idea of giving us hard truth in love. So, consider starting with tier 1, where you begin to send signals that you are looking for feedback. And then you can transition to efforts like tier 3, where you ask for feedback with very clear and focused boundaries. Over time, you will lead your team and people to a place where this behavior is normalized and is simply just a standard, but important way that we do business every day.
What is one way that you can signal to your people that you are genuinely interested in their feedback?
How can you build safety around feedback with your people this week?
What is one event this week where you can start to ask for feedback?