Feedback: I wonder what they are thinking!

Feedback: I wonder what they are thinking!

We like good surprises.  Winning the lottery would be a big yes. An unexpected raise or a long sought after promotion is always welcome.  Giving and receiving gifts for birthdays and holidays brings joy and smiles.

But there is another kind of gift that can be scarier to get, which is asking for genuine feedback.  It requires you to be vulnerable and to open yourself to criticism. You risk learning that a project you poured your heart into was perceived by others as less than successful, or that you unintentionally stepped over your colleague along the way. Given the risks of feeling bad, it’s natural to avoid seeking out feedback.

When we work closely with others, we know that our colleagues may have concerns from time-to-time, and wouldn’t it be useful to have some insights about their thinking?  Maybe if we heard it, we could do something about it.  Finding ways to draw feedback from others allows us to expand our knowledge of ourselves.  We often do not see ourselves as others see us, and sometimes that is to our detriment.   A way we can grow is to understand how we are perceived by others. Even if we choose not to use the feedback, there is value in knowing it.

The key is to be open to feedback, ask for it in a constructive way, and then use it for improvement.  Here are some ways to ask for feedback.

1. Make it routine.
After every project or big event for which you had lead responsibility, schedule time for a debrief with team members. Explain the purpose of the exercise, and make it clear that the purpose is to improve results for the next time. Be open to hearing both the positive results and learnings for the future.

2. Use different settings.
Most often, real feedback is best delivered one-on-one.  If you sense that you might have done something that didn’t quite sit right with people or have some specific questions that you are hoping to learn from, the ideal setting is individually face-to-face.  On the other hand, sometimes a group setting will encourage people to make observations they might not alone.  Being sensitive to what will be the best environment for the type of feedback you want to receive can increase the likelihood that you’ll get something useful.

3. Give them a heads up.
Provide people a chance to gather their thoughts before presenting their feedback. They will have time to figure out exactly what they want to say and how best to say it, which will increase its benefits for you.

4. Don’t rely on email or texts.
Asking for feedback in writing is risky because there’s no room for tone, and people can read and re-read negative feedback (and read into it) in a way that’s not helpful. Whenever possible, set things up to receive feedback in person, or at least in a phone call.

5. Act on the feedback.
When you receive valuable feedback and make changes based on it, people will notice.  It may be appropriate to make it formal, such as a change to a process or procedure that came about due to some courageous feedback you received.   People will be more likely to offer it in the future if they know it’s not a waste of time.

As you begin to solicit feedback, be sure to return the favor by offering useful feedback. The exchange of feedback creates a helpful cycle, offering everyone the opportunity to improve in an atmosphere of trust and honesty.

Jan PerkinsJan Perkins is a local government consultant assisting leaders with strategic planning, facilitation, executive coaching, performance evaluations, and more.  She is a former city manager of Fremont and Morgan Hill, California; assistant city manager of Santa Ana, California; and started her career in Michigan in the cities of Grand Rapids and Adrian.  She is an ICMA Credentialed Manager, graduate of the University of Kansas’ MPA Program, a founding board member of Women Leading Government and  a past president of the California City Management Foundation. [email protected]