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The Most Effective Feedback Is the Kind You Ask for

The Most Effective Feedback Is the Kind You Ask for

by Chris Musser

Story Highlights

  • Only 26% of employees say the feedback they receive improves their work
  • Leaders should encourage people to ask for feedback rather than offer it
  • Asking for feedback builds partnerships and boosts engagement

How do you feel when a colleague says, "Can I give you some feedback?" Tense, defensive, anxious?

You likely feel very different when asked, "Can you give me some feedback?"

Those words can immediately create a trusting atmosphere in which feedback is exchanged and processed effectively. A feedback-rich environment drives business outcomes. Gallup research shows that having conversations about development can improve employee engagement, which in turn improves productivity and profitability.

Despite these findings, most organizations still encourage their people to "give more feedback." This is one of the reasons that only 26% of the feedback people receive is effective. This is also a sure way to create anxiety and fear in teams.

Avoid that. Flip the script. Encourage people to ask for feedback rather than offer it. It can change the whole feedback dynamic and boost engagement. Here's why.

  1. It builds a busy two-way street: As Ben Wigert and Nate Dvorak point out, feedback should be a "busy two-way street." You can't improve traffic by only giving feedback -- people retreat from too much criticism, and the street comes to a halt. When you ask for feedback, you get traffic moving and make it easier for others to request feedback in return. That gives people an opportunity to build partnerships, even friendships, that can make them both more productive and happier at work.

  2. It separates facts from feelings: Feedback can include more perception than reality, and it can reflect the biases of the giver more than the performance of the receiver. But whoever initiates the feedback process can clarify exactly what they want to discuss: "Tell me how you felt when you heard my presentation -- we can add more data later," for example, or "I'd like to address the factual accuracy of the statements I made during my presentation. I have asked an editor for help with the wording." This gives people control so they can pivot the conversation or shut it down if the feedback becomes unhelpful or feels threatening.

  3. It sets personal parameters: By establishing the parameters of the feedback request, the requester alerts the giver to personal sensitivities -- we don't all want our grammar corrected or our expertise challenged, after all. That allows for more individualized and more compassionate feedback, an effective way to show a coworker genuine care.

  4. It deactivates the fight-or-flight response: An offer of feedback can sound like the prelude to criticism, and it often is. But a request for feedback circumvents the lizard-brain fear of attack and opens the requester to needed development. And this signal of vulnerability can actually help coworkers bond -- in fact, it's a well-known aspect of social psychology's attachment theory.

Feedback Can Be a Means of Self-Development and Engagement

Asking for feedback is a surprisingly powerful approach to self-development, especially when it's part of basic performance management. It can even be considered a deliverable -- the last step of a project. Regardless, requested feedback allows teams to demonstrate the care that everyone needs to feel engaged.

But asking for a critique doesn't come naturally to everyone. Some workers might need their manager's nudge -- "Did you ask anybody for their input? Karl might be helpful to you; he worked on a similar project."

Leading by example is a time-tested method to gain traction, as well. Managers can make a point of closing meetings by asking someone for feedback to show people how it's done. Employees could do the same on a rotating basis. One Gallup team instituted a monthly feedback group for themselves, and others found it so inspiring that they asked to join it.

That's how feedback should feel -- inspiring. Unsolicited feedback rarely is. Usually, it produces more anxiety than uplift, more stress than engagement, more tension than development -- and more harm than good.

That's the worst possible result of feedback. And it's completely avoidable -- if workers make a habit of asking for feedback rather than offering it.

Flip the script and see better business outcomes:


Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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