Making the Most of Feedback

Making the Most of Feedback
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“How am I doing?” This is a question that everyone wonders about at some point in time. Still, few feel comfortable asking. Even if you do ask, chances are good that you will not receive a satisfactory answer. Instead, you are likely to get some vague comments or, worse, information that leaves you wondering even more just how you and your work are being perceived.

Giving and receiving feedback are valuable career skills. Here are some tips for becoming a better user of feedback.

Receiving and Processing Feedback

First, let’s look at how to be more effective in receiving feedback. Three useful ways to think about feedback are:

  • How can you make it easy for others to give you feedback?
  • How can you encourage the most useful type of feedback?
  • How do you offer feedback to help others be more effective?

 As an added bonus, when you use these skills you are likely to find that you build stronger relationships with those around you.

One strategy for making it easy for someone else to help you is to get right to the point of what you want to know. Avoid asking a general question, such as, “How am I doing?” Instead, ask a question that leads the other person toward what you need to know. For example: “When I am leading team meetings, I”m concerned that I may be leaving things too open ” providing too little structure. How does the amount of structure in our meetings work for you?”

In this example, you’ve given the person a situation to think about (when I’m leading”¦), and the action (leaving things . . . ). Then you asked for the impact or result of what you do (how does . . . work for you). This sort of inquiry encourages the person to remember and to focus on what you have in mind. When you ask for the result, your peer is encouraged them to respond with thoughts, opinions and ideas about specific things you did. You have made it easy for the other person to give you useful feedback.

Making it easier for people to give you good feedback is likely to increase both how much feedback you receive and how useful that feedback is. Still, it is easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what you are hearing. Understanding is hard work, but you can decrease the likelihood of misunderstandings when you work to understand and find ways to use the feedback. Here are three ways to help this process:

  • Probe for more information. The more you hear about the other person’s ideas or point of view, the more likely you are to understand. Simple requests such as, “I’d like to hear more about . . . ” can lead to a much deeper level of communication.
  • Ask for examples. Examples make vague information concrete. Something as simple as “can you think of a time when . . .” can increase your understanding enormously.
  • Say it in your own words. Paraphrasing is not parroting. It is, however, a tool to check out whether you are clear. This can be especially important when the information is complicated or controversial.

Even the most effective employees do not always get positive feedback about their performance on a project or task. Some feedback you like; other feedback you don’t. Handling feedback that is not complimentary or positive has its challenges. One primary rule about receiving feedback is to treat all feedback as a gift. You have received something that you did not have before; you see how the other person perceives you. When you treat feedback as a gift, you are able to avoid the traps of defending yourself or trying to explain away the other person’s point of view.

Offering Feedback

The other side of feedback is giving information to others. There is no magic formula for offering feedback that will always be on the mark and useful to others. There are, however, some things you can do to improve the odds that your feedback will be useful and appreciated.

To begin with, pay attention to your intentions. Ask yourself why you are interested in providing this feedback. Remember that feedback is helpful when someone else can use it to either maintain good performance or improve. Perhaps you want to give feedback to someone on the team who did something well. Or you may want to help someone think through what might happen if he continues in the current direction on the project. If your intention in the feedback is to help the other person learn and grow, good! If, on the other hand, your intention is to vent, criticize or put the other person down, be careful. This is not helpful and could come back to haunt you.

If you have examined your motives for feedback and found that they are positive, then pay attention to some opportunities to make this feedback most useful. First, be specific. Someone may want to hear, “Good job!” If you can take this a step further and describe what you see that makes this such a positive outcome, your feedback will be even more useful. For example, “When you described the options for next steps, you were so clear that even those not knowing the background could support your first choice.” Notice that in this example, the situation, behavior and impact were all included.

You will find that the quality of your feedback improves dramatically when you have a good picture of how the other person sees the situation. This leads to another tip for giving feedback ” balance telling with asking. Feedback should be a conversation.  After concluding a difficult meeting led by your co-worker, asking “How do you think the meeting went?” is a simple question that could lead to learning for both of you. Hear the other person’s response, then offer your suggestions if they seem appropriate.

Obviously, feedback is not always easy ” giving or receiving. There are personalities involved, and there can be special situations in which it might be best to wait. Still, giving and receiving feedback effectively arms you with a powerful tool to grow and develop in your career.

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Peggy Hutcheson, Ph.D, is a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga. She is founding partner of the Odyssey Group, a firm specializing in products and services for organizations and individuals to connect people to changing work roles. She is a member of the IEEE-USA Communications Committee, and she has served as co-chair of the IEEE-USA Innovation Institute, and as chair of IEEE-USA’s Employment and Career Services Committee. Peggy is a speaker and author, having co-authored Helping Employees Manage Careers, published more than a dozen articles, presented a half dozen invited webinars, contributed to five books, and authored two IEEE-USA eBooks on Work-Life Balance. Her contributions have been recognized with leadership awards from ASTD, IEEE-USA, and Georgia State University.

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