How to get helpful, actionable feedback from your colleagues
This post originally appeared on Lead Dev.
Earlier in my career, I used to ask this question at the end of every one-on-one with a teammate: “Is there anything I can be doing differently or better?”
I thought that asking this question was a great idea. I imagined it signaled to my colleague that I genuinely cared about their perspective and insight. I wanted to demonstrate that I was open to growing as a leader. And I genuinely did want to learn about the things I could be doing better!
But if you’ve asked this question in a one-on-one, you know what typically happens next.
“Is there anything I can do better?” rarely elicits a helpful, thorough response. Once in a while, you’ll work with a colleague who will take this opportunity to share a piece of thoughtful, constructive feedback or a nudge that’s specific and actionable. But more often, you’ll hear, “Nope, nothing I can think of!” or “Nah, you’re doing great!” and then your chat will end.
With a response like that, you’ve got nothing to work with. That’s why instead of asking the broad, “Any feedback for me?” question, try asking for feedback on a specific area or skill. This tends to feel a bit easier for someone to respond to. It’s really hard to come up with something to say when you’re put on the spot, and it’s even harder to quickly think through all of the different areas that you might have feedback on, so you need to make it as easy as possible for your colleagues.
So, let’s experiment with a new approach: identify a skill that you’re hoping to improve, and then request feedback on that specific skill. This approach has the benefit of being easier for the person giving you feedback, and more impactful and useful for you. It’s a win-win!
What skill do you want to build?
When you ask for feedback, direct the topic into a place that is both useful to you, and makes it easy for someone to provide that exact feedback. This way, the feedback will genuinely help you grow and you can quickly operationalize what they’re telling you. So let’s make sure that you’re asking for feedback on a skill that you are genuinely working to improve, or that matters a lot to you.
If you need some inspiration, here are some example skill areas that you might want to explore:
- People management: creating clarity, shaping team culture, supporting career or skill growth in others, addressing conflict
- Team/organization delivery: increasing velocity, driving business goals, prioritizing and saying “no” effectively, managing stakeholders, improving communication
- Strategy: making decisions, roadmapping and goal setting, shaping the future of the organization
Make sure that you’re asking for feedback on a skill that you actually want to improve or focus on, not just one that seems like it’s something you should focus on! People can often tell if you actually want to hear their feedback—and if they share some, but you do zero follow-up going forward or neglect to discuss it further, they’re not going to believe you when you ask for feedback again in the future.
Ask your colleague
Once you’ve picked a skill that you’d like some feedback on, identify two to three teammates or peers who have witnessed you practicing this skill or are impacted when you use this skill. I try to give someone a heads up ahead of time that I’d like their feedback on a particular topic (so that they have time to think about it!), but you can also simply ask them when you meet next.
You can kick off the feedback conversation by saying, “Something I’m working on is getting better at [skill]. Since you’ve seen [example of me using this skill], could you give me some feedback on it?” Then ask these questions, one at a time:
- “What outcomes—positive or negative—have you seen from my efforts/attempts at [skill]?”
- “What new approaches or tactics do you think I should experiment with here?”
Or, for a more lightweight version of this conversation, you can ask:
- “Quick gut check: I’m attempting to get better at [skill] but I’m not sure if I’m getting it right. Could you take a look at this and tell me what you see/notice?”
If the person you’re talking to needs some more time to think about it, that’s okay! Agree on a time for a follow-up conversation. But I’m hopeful that this person will have some helpful insights for you that you can talk through together.
What if you need some processing time?
When we ask for feedback, our fight-or-flight response might kick in. We’re nervous, we worry we might get feedback that we didn’t expect, or that feels disappointing. And that’s okay. Something I learned from coach and trainer Paloma Medina is that, on average, it takes about 30 minutes for the rational, logical part of your brain to come back online after that fight-or-flight response gets activated.
If you notice you’re not able to fully hear or process this person’s feedback, even though you requested it, don’t worry! Simply ask to take a break from the conversation so you can get a chance to regroup and bring the rational, logical part of your brain back online. After all, you do care about getting this person’s feedback; you’ll want to be in a better headspace to receive the feedback, ask follow-up questions, and make a plan. Your colleague will want this for you, too!
A tool that might come in handy here is what Medina calls a “back-pocket script”—statements or questions you always have at the ready, like they’re in your back pocket. Here are some examples of scripts you might employ:
- “Thank you for telling me about this, I really appreciate it. I’m realizing that it’s a lot to take in. Any chance we could chat more about this again tomorrow?”
- “My brain is still processing this, but I do want to talk about it! Can we come back to it this afternoon when I’ve had a chance to process?”
These don’t have to feel unnatural; the key is to sound genuine. The formula I used in those examples is a pause or time out, followed right away with an easy suggested next step, like “how about we talk tomorrow?”
By identifying a short script in advance, your brain will be better able to deal with a surprising internal response to your requested feedback.
Repeated feedback loops strengthen a feedback relationship
Over time, repeating this exercise of asking for feedback on a specific area or skill will build a stronger relationship with the other person. They’ll learn that you’ll have a thoughtful, measured response to their feedback, whether or not you agree with the feedback yourself. And you’ll know so much more about what their approach to giving feedback looks like—and how it feels to receive—which can significantly help you feel more prepared for their feedback in the future.
By continuing to request their valued feedback on the things that you’re genuinely working to improve, you’re demonstrating that you’re invested in your personal growth and trust their perspective. They may begin to feel more comfortable, eager, and ready to share feedback outside of the areas you’re requesting feedback on. This is a great signal that you’ve built a foundation of trust, and will hopefully lead to new insights about your own growth that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. And they may even ask for your feedback, too.
Asking for feedback is an important skill, and it’s one that we can hone with practice. You deserve to receive feedback from the people who see and are impacted by your work. I’m hopeful you will begin to build more successful feedback relationships so that you can learn and grow as a leader. I know your teammates will be grateful for this lower-stakes opportunity to support you in your growth, too.