Not Getting the Feedback You Need? Try This


Patricia, a young professional, approached me after a speaking engagement and asked me what she could do to get better feedback. She asks for it but is often disappointed by how unhelpful the responses are to her development. She gets answers like “Oh, I think you’re doing a great job,” or, “I’ll let you know if I see anything noteworthy.”

I bet we can all relate to Patrica’s frustration. Here’s an individual who wants to be a better professional and is actively seeking feedback from leaders of her organization, but isn’t getting much help in return. 

The simple truth is that people want feedback, but they don’t want to give it. I observe that most people love receiving their 360 feedback from their teammates. They genuinely appreciate it when you provide specific examples regarding their performance. Why don't they like returning the favor?

Giving feedback is hard work.

We can break down why giving feedback is hard into three causes:

1. Your performance isn’t my primary focus.

When you ask for feedback on your performance, you are asking me on the spot to think about you. Nobody wants to admit this, but we’re not thinking about your performance very often. We spend most of our days thinking about our own performance. We can’t help it. We spend all day with ourselves, and we have a job to do, so we are preoccupied with all the challenges of doing our work and collaborating with others. We don’t have enough bandwidth to think about what you’re doing unless you aren’t meeting our expectations.

2. You are supposed to be good.

The expectation at work is that you will do your job well. On a graded scale, this means that we expect everyone to perform within the C+ to B+ range, at least. We don’t notice your performance if you are operating within this range of expectations, which means that if you ask us for feedback, our response is likely going to be, “I think you’re doing a great job.”

The two exceptions are performers at the high and low end of the range. We notice when you reach the A+ end of the range and are likely to offer praise that you'll interpret as appreciation rather than feedback. We also notice if you're performing below expectations, and we classify it in two ways. Your low performance is either a lack of competence, laziness, or both. If we think it's laziness, then it's a character flaw, and we won't waste our time on feedback because you're likely too lazy to do anything about it. If we believe there is a lack of competence or skill, then we want to give you feedback but don’t always know how best to deliver the information.

3. You won’t like me if I tell you the truth.

For most people finding the words to give you feedback is challenging. We grew up with the saying: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” In Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor, she says that most people fall into “ruinous empathy,” which means they care about you and your feelings so much that it makes it difficult to be candid with their feedback.

I'm painting a pretty bleak picture, but I’ve been a young go-getter, always asking for feedback, and also someone on the receiving end, so I want to acknowledge the very real dichotomy of feedback.

What can we do to get the feedback we need?

But there has to be something you and Patricia can do to get the feedback you need to grow. Don't lose hope. It can be done. But it's going to require you to change your strategy when it comes to getting the feedback you need. 

1. Change your definition of feedback. 

Part of Patricia’s challenge is how she defines feedback. She is probably defining it, as most of us do, as insightful information provided by a colleague at work. This is only one form of feedback, and seeking this form of feedback exclusively implies a lack of ownership.

There are several ways to collect feedback on your performance, but it requires you to take responsibility for your development rather than placing it in the hands of others. Owning your development means you have an aim that you’re trying to achieve and that you're using all the available data to help you reach it.

Here are several forms of feedback available to us every day:

  • How are people responding to your behavior? – Your presence influences every interaction with another person. Are you getting the response you desire? If no, why not?

  • What questions do people ask you? – Based on their questions, can you tell the aim of the person asking? If they are exploratory, it may mean they’re interested and want to learn more. If they are dissecting your work, they may not find you credible. Why?

  • What projects are you invited to work on? – People who do great work get asked to do more work. If you’re being asked to take on more responsibility, then ask yourself, why?

  • Who is asking for your advice or ideas? – What caliber of people are asking for your opinion? Do you respect these people? Are you in the inner circle, or are you on the outside looking in? If no one, why not?

  • What’s your level of confidence in a given situation? – What are those moments when you can do no wrong? When are those moments when you want to shrink or become invisible? What can you learn from these moments?

  • What’s your body telling you? – What conditions or circumstances make your palms sweat or heart race? When do you have those powerful feelings of excitement well up in your chest? When do you feel the need to defend yourself?

2. Ask better questions.

Think back to when you last asked for feedback from someone. How helpful were the responses you received? If you’re like me, then you have always been disappointed in how little thought the other person put into their answer. It’s not their fault. Bad questions lead to bad answers.  

Here are three terrible ways to ask for feedback:

  1. So, how am I doing?

  2. What feedback do you have for me?

  3. What do you think?

If we want quality insights, then we need to help the other person by asking better questions. 

Better questions do three things:

  1. Tell the person precisely what it is you are working on.

  2. Help them zero in on exactly where you want their help.

  3. Invite them to share their experiences or perspectives.

 Some examples are as follows:

  • I’m working on slowing down when I give a presentation. How did you find the pace of my speech?

  • Would you read this article and tell me which part resonates most with you?

  • Would you take a look at my PowerPoint presentation and tell me which parts I should leave out?

  • I’ve noticed that anytime I’m in a meeting with Amy, I feel her become defensive. What do you see me doing that might be causing it?

 3. Run experiments.

Each of us has a natural style that is most comfortable for us. Running an experiment means playing at the edge of your natural style to learn what kind of response you get from other people. It requires more risk and some discomfort.

Being a facilitator of strategy and team alignment workshops means that I have the opportunity to experiment with my style, message, and delivery all the time. What I've learned is that the definition of "me" is broader and more nuanced than I initially thought.

Lately, I've been experimenting with candor. I'd like to think I'm a candid person, but I've noticed that I wished I’d spoken up or challenged people more in the past workshops. I set out to experiment with being more direct with people and have learned that my natural candor setting is a five, but it's at an eight where I offer the most value to clients. 

I don't ask people about how they feel about my candor because it would spoil the experiment. Instead, I dial it up to an eight and see what happens. The insights come from within rather than from direct feedback. How did it feel? What reaction did you get from other people? How did your boss respond to the change in approach? When you deliberately try to do things in a new way, you give yourself control over what you can learn about yourself.

Examples of experiments you can run yourself:


Final Thought

Feedback on our performance is essential to our development, but we shouldn't limit ourselves on how we define it. If we broaden our definition, take greater ownership, and sharpen our senses, we can receive the feedback available all around us.

Ready for the next step? Take the feedback you get and put it together with these nine steps and you’ll be on your way to becoming a strategic leader. Get started now

Jeff Shannon