How to Get feedback

Getting feedback is one of the most overlooked management skills there is. The focus is usually on how to give feedback, but getting it is arguably more important.

Most of the time the reason we don’t get valuable feedback is that we are behaving in ways that block it happening. A lot of what many people assume are good leadership behaviours actively prevent people from giving them honest or useful feedback.

Here, we’re going to cover the ways you can accidentally block yourself getting feedback, and the things you can do instead.

My door is always open

One of the most common mistakes is to take a passive approach to getting feedback. If you just tell everyone “You can come to me if you have any problems”, that isn’t enough. You can’t just have an open door.

You have to be far more active when you want feedback. Asking people these kinds of questions will be far more valuable than just telling them your door is always open:

  • “What about this could be better?”
  • “What one thing could I do to make your job easier?”
  • “What difference will this make?”
  • “Where might this cause a problem?”
  • “What would you do differently?”
  • “How do you find working with…”
  • “How do you think we could improve?”

Your Ego is getting in the way

Another extremely common and far more damaging blocking behaviour is related to your ego. It usually plays out a bit like this:

A member of your team comes to you and gives you some feedback on something. You quickly decide that they’ve misunderstood something, and that the thing they’re pointing out isn’t really a problem at all. So you start to explain why what they’re raising isn’t actually a problem. This shuts them down completely. You don’t learn anything, and they learn not to bother coming to you in future.

What’s crucial to understand here is that even if you are right, and they are wrong, handling it this way makes getting feedback in future much harder. If you hear feedback, you must always assume it might be valid, even if your instinct says it’s not. I call this method getting in the car.

If you want to direct where a car is going, you need to get in it first. Just crashing headfirst into it because you think it’s going the wrong way isn’t effective. If you want to influence the driver, you need to be in the car.

When someone comes to you with feedback, their opinion is all you should be interested in. You don’t need to give them yours right away. Even if you’re convinced they’re wrong, you need to find out why they think what they think and learn as much as you can.

  • “What do you think would happen when…”
  • “How would that affect…”
  • “What if…”
  • “What do you think that could mean…”
  • “Why do you think that happens…”
  • “Have you got any suggestions…”
  • “Why do you think that is?”
  • “How could we change this?”
  • “Who needs to be involved?”

If you have a proper discussion with people when they give you feedback - even if at the end of the discussion you still don’t agree with them - they’ll feel like you value their opinion and they’ll be more likely to come to you again in future. If you just shut them down immediately, you’ll probably never get feedback from them again.

You ask without asking

Sometimes, this happens:

  • You feel like you should get some feedback from someone
  • So you ask them “How are things going?”
  • And they say “Fine”
  • And you say “No problems?”
  • And they say “No”
  • And you think everything is fine and there are no problems

If you want to get feedback you have to ask specific open questions. Nobody feels like they’re expected to answer “How are things going?” honestly. Imagine if people actually did that, it would be awful. We don’t answer that question honestly because the question itself implies the person asking doesn’t really want to know.

If you want to actually get feedback, you need to ask better questions:

  • “What have you been working on…”
  • “What’s going well with …”
  • “What could be better with …”
  • “Would you change anything about …”
  • “What would make your life easier”
  • “What’s the worst thing about…”
  • “What one thing could I do to make your job better…”
  • “Who have you been working with”

You don’t need any particular agenda when you ask these questions. Just asking them will show that the door really is open, and that you are really interested. Back when I had a boss, when they showed this kind of interest in me I took that as an opening. I realised it meant that they actually wanted to know what I thought, and I found a way to move the conversation to the thing I wanted to say. The questions themselves are less important than the fact you’re asking them to begin with.

You don’t like the way they gave it

Having the ability to get feedback from people who are terrible at giving it is really useful. If you’re just going to hear the people who are good communicators, you’re shutting down a huge number of people.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with people who aren’t necessarily the best when it comes to expressing their frustration with how things are going. A lot of the time, someone will sit on something for a long time without mentioning it, then eventually blow up. And when they do, it’s really common for managers to focus on the fact that they behaved unprofessionally instead of finding out about the situation that led to it.

This isn’t to say the unprofessional behaviour should be ignored, but we should seperate the issues. We still want the feedback.

When someone has had a work tantrum, before you talk to them about their behaviour, get the information about what caused it. If you dive straight into giving them feedback about how they behaved, they’re extremely unlikely to take that on before you’ve listened to them anyway. Handling it this way will stop you getting the feedback, and make the feedback you give less effective. Listen first, talk after.

You’re negative about negative

If you treat what you consider to be negative feedback in a negative way, you’re just going to stop hearing it. That doesn’t mean everything will have magically become better, it just means that you’ve stopped hearing about the things that are wrong.

This behaviour is kind of self-perpetuating. You reject negative comments, then people stop being negative, so you think your positive attitude has stopped people being negative. It almost certainly hasn’t. Those negative conversations are still happening, just not with you.

There’s also a clear distinction you need to make between negative feedback, and moaning.

  • Negative Feedback is…

    • When they tell you something we/you/someone else is doing that is having a negative impact on the outcome
  • Moaning is…

    • When they tell you something that is having a negative impact on them personally, but doesn’t affect the outcome

If someone is moaning, you should shut that down. Moaners are terrible people to have on teams and if someone constantly moans I believe they should be fired as a matter of urgency. But people who give negative feedback are invaluable. They’re the people who are smart enough to see there’s a problem, and who care enough to bring it up. You want these people on your team.

The message you should be giving your people is that Negative Feedback is the most positive thing anyone can give you. The people who give it should be held up as examples to the group, and you should always be grateful and excited to hear it

It’s worth reiterating this point - they had to be clever enough to see it, and care enough to bring it up - these people are the people who are going to make you successful.

You’re overly positive

A lot of leaders make the mistake of thinking they always need to be positive, no matter what. It’s so common that The Lego Movie famously mocked the way of thinking with the song Everything is Awesome.

When you are clearly pretending things are better than they are, you make it so much harder for people to approach you with any feedback that challenges that view. You’re telling people that you’re not really interested in the bad stuff, you just want to act like everything is fine.

If there’s stuff that’s not great, acknowledging that is fine. Being positive doesn’t mean pretending nothing negative even exists, it just means being positive about the prospects of making things better. You don’t need to say “Everything is awesome”, you can say “Ok, so this isn’t great…how are we going to make it awesome?”

You say this…

This specific example always gets a mention from me, because there are so many people I’ve worked with who’ve said it, and because there are still so many people who think this is a good thing for a manager to say.

“I don’t want problems, I want solutions”

Don’t say this. If you say this to people, they’re not going to tell you when something is wrong that they can’t resolve, and those are precisely the things you do need them to tell you about. Think about how pointless this message is - if they already have a solution, they shouldn’t be coming to you, they should just be getting on with it.

You should say the exact opposite of that statement.

“I don’t want solutions, I want problems”

Encourage your people to bring you problems that they don’t have solutions for. Those are the things you need to hear about.

If you put effort into getting feedback and ensure you’re engaging in the typical behaviours that block it, you’ll find everything else about the job gets easier. You’ll get in front of problems and stop them developing into serious issues, and your people will be far more engaged and empowered.

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