How to give and receive feedback

In school, grades are the primary way we judge our progress and if things are on the right track (their effectiveness is the subject of another post). But what happens after we graduate and get a job?

If you wait until a formal performance review to understand how things are going, you miss a critical opportunity to speed up your learning by collecting informal feedback.

From this perspective, learning how to give and receive feedback is one of the most important real-world skills, yet most schools and workplaces offer little to no training on the topic.

I wanted to share some things I’ve learned about feedback from working in cross-functional roles at big, mature companies and smaller high-growth ones. You can start experimenting with many of these tactics right away—I’d love to hear if they resonate with you.

Receiving feedback

1/ Ask for it!
If you only remember one thing from this post, this is it: You won’t get what you don’t ask for. Feedback conversations can be awkward and for the most part, people won’t be jumping up and down to share their honest thoughts with you. The best way to get around this is by explicitly asking for and reminding people that you welcome their feedback.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when making the actual ask…

1a/ Have the right intentions
Be honest with yourself about your motivations for requesting feedback and your readiness to hear candid comments. Maybe you want to improve a key working relationship or figure out how to set yourself up for a promotion. Bottom line: It should be in the spirit of self-improvement. People will see through attempts to get validation or requests for feedback just for the sake of appearances, and be less likely to take you up on your offer.

1b/ Make it as easy as possible for the other person to give you feedback
Remember that you’re asking people for a favor and to take time out of busy schedules to think about you. Avoid generic requests like “Hey, could you give me some feedback on how I’m doing?” This puts all the burden on the other person to figure out where to start and what to focus on.

Instead, tailor your request to a specific area: “I’m working on my public speaking skills. Could you watch for filler words and eye contact when I give my presentation on Wednesday?”

If it’s a more general check-in, provide structure to guide the conversation. It can be as simple as:

  • What’s going well
  • What can be improved

2/ Listen
Once you’ve convinced someone to give you feedback, ensure that it won’t just be a one-off thing by making it worth their time. Have the conversation in a quiet, distraction-free place. Give the person your undivided attention, take notes if you need to, and don’t interrupt. Ask follow-up questions if anything is unclear or you sense something has been left unsaid.

3/ Express appreciation
The first thing you should do after someone has offered their thoughts is thank them for taking the time to give you feedback. As anyone who’s done this before can tell you, it takes courage to be candid and thoughtfulness to do it well.

Try not to get defensive about the constructive parts and don’t feel pressure to address all (or any) of the points right then and there. It’s totally reasonable to say, “These are good callouts. Let me take some time to reflect on them and get back to you.”

When someone gives you a compliment, don’t brush it off in an attempt to act modest. That devalues both you and the effort that went into delivering the compliment. A simple “Thank you, I really appreciate that,” works great.

Giving feedback

1/ Most of your feedback should focus on the positive stuff
There’s been a lot of research on the optimal ratio of positive to negative feedback, but this sums it up nicely:

positive feedback tweet

2/ Constructive feedback should be timely
The longer you wait to deliver feedback, the harder it is to establish shared context and get your message across clearly. I remember being in a meeting where a coworker was giving a presentation to people on our team and cross-functional leaders. I noticed she was only making eye contact with the former and mentioned this to her right after the meeting ended. This kind of small but significant observation would have been hard to communicate and less impactful even a couple of hours after the fact.

3/ Constructive feedback should be specific
The more specific your feedback, the more receptive the other person will be to your message, and the more productive the conversation. If you feel like you’re being micromanaged, instead of saying “I don’t think you trust my work”, point to a project where you didn’t have enough decision-making autonomy, or a time when something could have been delegated but wasn’t.

4/ Constructive feedback should be actionable
This ties closely to the previous point; in general the more specific your feedback, the more actionable it is as well. Are there clear next steps the person can take to address the feedback? The goal here is to separate the behavior change from the person. Try to focus your language on verbs vs. adjectives and personality traits.

For example, instead of “You seem too quiet for this leadership role”, break down the expectations for that position and where the gaps are:

  • You need to be able to wrangle cross-functional consensus and push back where appropriate. There was a missed opportunity to do this when…
  • You need to be able to inspire confidence within your team. Let’s brainstorm ways you can practice this…
  • etc.

It’s rare that any of this stuff is second nature, but it does get easier with practice. Let me know if you find these tips helpful and if there’s anything I forgot to mention; I’d love to hear from you.

360 feedback experiment

Inspired by this Quora post, a friend and I decided to reach out to people whose opinion we valued for feedback on our strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what we asked:

  1. What role does Alice play in your life? (How do you know her)
  2. What is Alice good at? Describe her at her best.
  3. What are some ways you’d love to see her build on these strengths?
  4. What is Alice not so good at? Describe her on an off day.
  5. What are some ways Alice can improve on her weaknesses?

What I learned

Three themes that came up most frequently in my off day feedback were: being more assertive, dealing directly with conflict, and handling unmet expectations. Alice and I actually shared a lot of the same areas for improvement and I was kind of disheartened to see how much of it broke down along gender stereotypes.

Most of these were things I knew in the back of my mind but hearing them crystallized by others makes me feel empowered to “get an ounce cockier,” as someone put it. It was interesting that more than one person pointed out I could benefit from behaving in what feels like an extreme way but that won’t actually be extreme at all.

Things that surprised me

Going through Alice’s feedback, I was surprised at how consistent the comments were after just a few (~3) responses. I imagine most of us think that only our family and closest friends see certain sides of our personality. The reality is that though the degree to which we express them might vary, our quirks and inclinations are relatively stable across contexts.

The majority of the feedback focused on the “how” rather than the “what”. Less of a surprise, but I was still struck by how strongly the comments skewed towards approach as opposed to accomplishments. How do you make people feel when you’re around them? What’s your process for tackling problems and disagreements? It got me thinking that there has to be a better way to incorporate this qualitative measure into the job application process.

Tips

Make sure your list of people includes a range of perspectives. Some dimensions to consider: relationship (friend, family, coworker, mentor, etc.), how long you’ve known the person, gender, and age (older points of view can be especially insightful).

Per the consistency point earlier, you really only need a handful of insightful responses to start seeing patterns. Alice and I had between 15 and 20 people on our list and a ~55% response rate. Some ways to improve this percentage:

  • Give people a heads up this is coming…so your dad doesn’t ask your friend if the experiment is real after the second reminder email (oops).

  • Insightful comments take some reflection. Allow two weeks for people to send in their thoughts.

  • We probably could have cut questions three and five as a lot of people ended up answering them in their responses to two and four. Additionally, while many of the suggestions raised were actionable, you’re going to be the best judge of what next steps make sense in your situation.

Use this as an opportunity to test your self-awareness. Write down what you think are your biggest strengths and weaknesses and see how it compares to others’ perceptions.

If you’re interested in giving this a try, here’s the email we sent and a spreadsheet to track responses. Would love to hear what you learn!