Feedback is a Gift

Learn to receive it gratefully and give it freely


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Feedback is a Gift

If you want to be the best version of yourself, feedback is essential.

Feedback is a key component in deliberate practice, which many top performers use to excel. Tight feedback loops help stretch your capabilities, little-by-little. Repeating this over time leads to world-class performance.

If you research deliberate practice, you’ll find subjects that suit repetition. Sports and music are examples where embedding feedback loops is easy. In golf you can see how far you hit the ball and whether it dropped in the hole. With music you can hear when you hit the wrong note. You can practice over and over, with increasing difficulty.

But in business it’s harder to get the same level of feedback. How do you know if you’re performing in client meetings? How do you measure collaboration? Are you being a good manager? If not, what should you work on?

Without feedback it’s easy to get stuck in the performance zone, executing within our current capabilities. These activities give us a sense of mastery, yet they don’t stretch us to be better. To become more productive, we need to spend part of our week in the learning zone, using feedback to steer our improvement.

So where does business feedback come from? Small experiments, such as recording yourself practicing a presentation, can point towards development areas. But much of it must come from other people.

A benefit of using feedback from others is you’ll discover development areas you weren’t aware of. If you’re already introspective, you will have a grasp of your core development areas. But this won’t be an exhaustive list. It takes distance and perspective to see your other flaws. This is why external feedback is invaluable.

How to Ask for Feedback

The way you ask for feedback has a big impact on the quality.

The worst way to ask is “Can you give me some feedback?”. People avoid criticising others, so you will get favourable comments. You will hear what you’re doing well, but not what you need to improve.

Now, hearing what you do well isn’t worthless. It’s important to reflect on this information so you know what to continue doing. However, if you phrase the question in a way that encourages positive and constructive feedback, you’ll get much more valuable data. Here’s a better way to ask a colleague for feedback:

Hi Sam,

We’ve been working together recently on the Atlantis project. Could you provide me feedback on that experience? I’m interested to know:

My strengths; i.e. what I should keep doing in future.

My development areas; i.e. where I should focus my efforts to improve.

Thanks,
Duncan

Phrasing the question like this gives permission to include constructive criticism.

By asking for general feedback rather than naming a topic, such as communication, you may discover new areas for development. This also teaches you the strengths other people value in you, which may differ from your own perspective.

How to Respond to Constructive Feedback

I don’t think anyone enjoys hearing about their development needs. However, it’s important to see this as a gift. Without this extra perspective, areas of your professional life would remain weak.

The key is to do more than just read your feedback. If you only reflect on what was said, you end up in a worse position than before. You have damaged your self-confidence, which will impact your performance and productivity.

Instead, you need to address this development area. Use the feedback to create a plan to improve. This is empowering – you are mapping out a route to a superior version of yourself. Instead of crippling your confidence, you increase it. You begin to imagine a future version of you where this weakness is a strength.

Speak to your manager or mentor about how to develop this area. Create a concrete plan for improvement and decide how to measure success. Look for an objective way to measure progress, so you can be honest with yourself. Don’t ask the original feedback provider because they’re likely to be kind and encouraging rather than honest.

How to Give Feedback

Having recognised the value of feedback, it’s important to consider how to give this gift to other people.

My advice is to give it freely and often, especially for positive feedback. So many people slave away with little or no positive support for their efforts. If you can be a voice of appreciation it will make their week.

The feedback you give should be specific. Saying “You did great!” doesn’t provide guidance on what behaviours to repeat. Actionable feedback requires you describe the characteristics that made a difference. For instance, you could say: “You prepared well for that meeting and the client recognised it”. This leaves no doubt about the behaviours you appreciated.

As a manager, you should give positive and constructive feedback regularly. If you do it often, it becomes a regular part of your dynamic. However, if you wait until annual reviews, feedback becomes much more serious. Think of feedback as small course corrections, keeping the ship sailing smoothly.

If you’re not a manager, avoid dishing out too much constructive criticism. It’s not always welcome. However, when someone asks for feedback be sure to give them both sides of the coin. As we discussed above, it’s easy to ask for feedback badly. But fortunately, it’s always easy to respond properly.

Three Steps to Start Today

Think about how you can start giving and receiving more feedback today. Here are three steps you can take:

  1. Give someone positive feedback today. Send a quick email about something they’ve done recently that you appreciate.
  2. Review the last feedback you received and make an action plan to address it. You may need to think back to your last annual review, but that’s fine.
  3. Ask for feedback from several colleagues, using the approach described above. Schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss it.

Make this a regular habit and you’ll increase your performance beyond measure.