Wish You Were Getting More Feedback? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I get no feedback. I have done well in my career. I have some big goals and I think I am doing OK at my job. My manager is a big-picture person who is constantly on the move and is only interested in my results, not in me. I think if I asked her about my long-term prospects here, she would roll her eyes at me. (She rolls her eyes any time anyone digresses from the numbers and the key results.)

Recently, my spouse went through a program with her company where they sent out a questionnaire to the people she interacted with at work. She got a ton of insight into how she is perceived. There weren’t a lot of surprises, but she learned some useful info.

They don’t do that kind of thing in my company—but I was thinking it might be a good idea to ask some key folks I work with for some feedback, just to see if I might be missing something. Could it be risky? Would people tell me the truth? What if I find out something I wish I hadn’t?

If you think it might be a good idea, how would you suggest I go about it?

In the Dark

Dear In the Dark,

There is a school of thought that says “no news is good news.” Then again, Ken Blanchard says “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” I say that it never hurts to really see the full landscape—your playing field, if you will—to make sure you understand the exact game being played, the rules of the game, and how to win it. Too many folks who don’t pay attention are surprised when they find out they were playing the wrong game or they missed the memo about the rules changing.

I don’t think ignorance is bliss; I think it is a naïve choice. So, short answer: Yes.

  • Yes, I think it is a good idea to make the effort to get some insight.
  • Yes, it can be risky, but there are ways to mitigate the risk.
  • Some people will tell you the truth and some won’t, and that’s OK.
  • You will almost certainly find out some things that will make you uncomfortable.
  • And yes, I have some ideas about how to go about it.

Long answer:

Why feedback? It sounds like you think it may be useful to simply get the lay of land so that you have the information you need to move toward your big goals. You’ll want to assess for yourself where you think insight would be helpful. Is it something specific, or are you going for a more general picture? It’s a good idea to clarify your own intent and motives, such as:

  • Are you seeking insights to help you achieve your goals? Asking for feedback can help you build support for your long-term goals.
  • Do you want to build or protect your ego? There’s nothing wrong with that; just be ready to hear some things you wish you hadn’t.
  • Do you want to enhance or defend your self-image and your image in the organization? Again, information on how you are perceived is fine and often useful.

Getting clear on your intent will help you to shape what you decide to do with the feedback you get. Remember—feedback says more about the person giving it than it does about you. So understanding someone else’s perspective is a useful window into where they stand and what they see from that vantage point. It also tells you what is important to them, which may be the most illuminating insights of all.

The whole mission to get feedback can also be an opportunity to create an environment in which you signal that you are accessible and open to feedback, which will increase the likelihood that people will offer it without your having to ask all the time. This also means you will get feedback you don’t necessarily want—but if you know how to deal with it, that’s OK.

Who to get it from? You’ll want to decide who to ask. 360 degrees is upward, sideways with functional peers, and downward with your direct reports, if you have any. The more thorough you are, the clearer a picture you can get of your whole landscape. You might also consider approaching customers, internal and external, who depend on you. You can approach your boss via email—not to discuss your brilliant career (which she doesn’t seem to care about) but to give her the opportunity to provide input should she choose to do it. What you don’t want is for her to hear that you are asking around for feedback and didn’t include her!

Method: My favorite cut-to-the-chase method of asking for feedback is to ask for a meeting. Clearly state that you are seeking intel on how to improve all of your working relationships and that you want answers to the following questions:

In your opinion,

  • What should/could I do more of?
  • What should/could I do less of?
  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • Is there anything else you think I should know?

This gives some direction without too many guard rails. My big beef with the exhaustive online multi-rater 360s is that they are so in-depth that respondents are mentally exhausted before they get halfway through it. Provide the questions prior to the meeting—it gives people time to think over their answers. It is always nice to have these kinds of meetings over a coffee or a beer, but these days it will probably be web conference.

Risks: You only really make yourself vulnerable if you signal your intent—which you don’t need to do. All you have to say is that you want to be as effective as you can be in all of your working relationships, which is probably the truth and totally plausible. But yes, you do make yourself vulnerable, because you will expose yourself to anyone who has an axe to grind and takes advantage of the moment to give it to you right between the eyes. But my experience is that is much more common when people can hide behind a screen of anonymity.

How to receive feedback? This may be the hardest part. The whole exercise will absolutely backfire if you get defensive or attempt to explain or justify your position. Doing so will guarantee that the person will never give you feedback again. You must absolutely, positively practice almost superhuman self-regulation in response to all feedback.

You have a choice of the following responses. (Do not deviate from this plan.)

  • Thank you.
  • Tell me more.
  • I understand.

Do: If you hear about behavior or an event in which someone’s feelings were hurt or the apple cart was upset in some way, you can apologize for your part in it. Just say “Wow, I am sorry. I didn’t know and I am so glad you told me.” THAT’S IT. Don’t explain, don’t fall apart, don’t make a big deal out of it.

Don’t: make promises about changing. You are going to want to collect all of the feedback before deciding what you want to do with it. Making promises without really thinking through what you are willing to commit to will box you in. Only make promises you are certain you want to keep and can keep.

Will there be moments of discomfort? You bet there will, and that’s OK. You won’t die from it. You are going to need to be tough to achieve your big goals, and the key to toughness is practicing not taking things personally. Take notice of what makes you defensive—it gives you information about your own secret vanities and insecurities. That’s OK, too. We all have them, and the more aware you are of your own, the less they will drive your behavior and sabotage you when you least expect it.

What to do with feedback: You have to think of feedback as data, not the truth about you. Ask yourself: what does this tell me about this person that is useful? What does it tell me about our systems and processes that I hadn’t considered? What does it tell me about myself that is valuable? What might be true and worth taking under advisement?

Only after some deliberation and analysis will you decide what to do; and even then, you will want to choose only two or three things to focus on. Start small, with one thing—something you can do without getting a personality transplant—one thing you think will make a real difference. Maybe it is to stop interrupting. Or to start consulting others when making decisions. Something simple and doable.

Still up for it? I applaud your courage. It will be quite a journey, but one I think you will find worthwhile.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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