Most of us have done it. We get towards the end of a one-on-one meeting with a team member and we ask, “So, do you have any feedback for me?” Response? Most often, you can hear crickets playing outside, followed shortly by, “No, I can’t think of anything.” Occasionally, however, you get 20 to 30 minutes of everything you’ve ever done or said wrong! The first isn’t very helpful; the latter is either humbling or maddening, depending on how you accept criticism. Is there a better way?
I’ve listened to many student leadership philosophies during our Leadership Excellence Course workshops. Nearly every one included a statement seeking feedback from the leader’s subordinates. Why? For one reason, it helps establish a collaborative work environment when the leader makes clear that feedback is welcomed and encouraged. But don’t forget that feedback from your team members can help you in other ways. According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback, some forms of coaching can only come from your subordinates. They not only know your impact on them, but also see things that you do that get in their way, that undermine your stated goals, and that create extra work for them. In short, they know all too well that the boss has blind spots when it comes to his or her own performance. Receiving feedback is one of the best ways to eliminate those blind spots.
What is it about the word “feedback” that tends to turn cognitive processes off in the person we just asked of it? Could it be that “feedback” is one of those words that get tossed around without a good understanding of what it means? First, understand that there are three types of feedback with three different purposes. Referencing Thanks for the Feedback, feedback can be for: a) Appreciation – to motivate and encourage; as in “Thanks for setting up the meeting…”), b) Coaching – to increase knowledge, skill, capability, growth; “Let me show you how to set up a meeting…”, and c) Evaluation – to describe performance relative to others, to align expectations, and to inform decision making; “We got off track during the meeting and failed to meet its objectives…”). Not knowing which of these is being asked for could be a reason for the silence or for the unexpected answer. My suggestion is to drop the word “feedback” from the question and specifically ask for what you are seeking.
Now we are getting somewhere. Perhaps a blind spot of yours has been allowing the extroverted personalities on the team to dominate conversations. By specifically asking for evaluative feedback concerning the meeting and then asking for coaching feedback about that evaluation (without ever using the terms feedback, evaluation, or coaching) you uncovered something about yourself you may not have known.
So, stop asking for feedback! Instead, ask questions about specific events, circumstances, or topics that you are seeking feedback on. It may be a while before you start getting the quantity and quality of feedback you want, but I can guarantee that the conversations will be much more interesting.
The book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen is the definitive work on how to receive feedback and provides tremendous insight to those of us responsible for giving feedback. Consider adding it to your leadership reading list.