Listening to others’ thoughts about how you can improve can be a humbling and uncomfortable experience. It can naturally put us in a defensive stance. Just as positive feedback helps us understand what we’re doing well, critical feedback helps us understand where or how we need to improve. As awkward as it can be to receive less than positive feedback, it’s an important step toward improving performance. A trainer I once worked with used to remind us there are only two appropriate words in response to critical feedback, “thank you”. If you open yourself up to critical feedback as a tool towards improvement you will see possibilities you might not otherwise consider.
Make sure you get useful feedback
Here are five actions you can take to maximize your opportunities for improvement.
- Actively solicit feedback
- Make criticism safe
- Let others know what you’re looking for
- Tell people how you will use their feedback
- Take action based on feedback received
Actively solicit feedback
The first step toward receiving useful feedback is to actively solicit it. I have a very critical mind and tend to look at things from a point of view of how they could be better. I don’t do so in a condescending or arrogant way, I just naturally look at things and think about what would make them better. In order to avoid being seen as a perpetual critic and curmudgeon I keep most of those thoughts to myself. However, when I’m asked to provide feedback I take the time to really think it through and try to provide the most specific and actionable suggestions I can. I suspect lots of people are the same way. They may have an idea for improving whatever it is you’re doing but if you don’t ask for it you may never know. By actively soliciting feedback from a wide variety of people (supervisors, direct reports, peers, customers, etc.) you increase the odds of receiving it and send a clear signal you are interested in improvement.
Make criticism safe
If you really want to get honest feedback you need to make it safe for people to provide it. Many people are uncomfortable evaluating their peers not to mention their leaders. By actively soliciting feedback you’ve already made it clear you are open to constructive criticism. That’s a great first step toward making it safe. Here are few techniques that can make it even safer.
- Provide ways for people to anonymously submit their feedback. Anonymous feedback shouldn’t involve handwritten forms or any type of login or serial number that could be perceived as a way of tracing the feedback to an individual.
- Praise people for providing feedback. By publicly thanking those who provide feedback you make it clear nobody will be punished for being critical.
- Have another person or organization gather the feedback on your behalf. I recently asked a twelve person team of people for honest and candid feedback on how we could do things better. In order to ensure the team didn’t hold back, I asked one of the twelve to write the suggestions on a whiteboard and I excused myself from the room until they were finished. When I returned we reviewed the suggestions as a group to make sure I understood them but I never asked where any of the suggestions originated.
Let others know what you’re looking for
The more specific you are in the types of feedback you’re looking for, the more likely you are to get it. Don’t rule out ideas which fall outside your target categories but identifying the areas you are most interested in will help people focus their suggestions.
Tell people how you will use their feedback
A common complaint people have after providing feedback is they don’t know what happened to their suggestions. Our brains naturally make up stories to fill in knowledge gaps. A common story people tell themselves is their feedback was ignored, wasn’t seriously considered or otherwise wasn’t appreciated. Let people know, up front, how you plan to use the suggestions you receive. If you’re going to compile the list of suggestions and a response to each of them, that’s great. When will it be available and how will it be shared? If you’re simply going to consider each idea and take them on a case by case basis, that’s okay too as long as people understand.
Take action based on feedback received
Finally, once you receive the feedback you’ve requested, do something with it! There’s no better way to ensure people will stop giving you suggestions than by not doing anything with them. How many times have you heard somebody complain and when you ask if they’ve shared their complaints they retort “I’ve mentioned this several times before and nothing ever happens, so I don’t bother anymore.” When you take action based on feedback people quickly realize their opinions matter and they are much more likely to make suggestions in the future.
Most of the best ideas don’t come from the top, they come from people familiar with the day to day work and those using the products and service an organization offers. Feedback from your organization’s customers (internal or external) is a great source of ideas for improving them. By graciously accepting feedback in a thankful way you’ll make the entire process much more meaningful and rewarding for everyone involved. Finally, the next time you receive a suggestion on how to improve things simply respond with the words “thank you”.