It’s a curious business conundrum. We all need solid feedback to learn, grow, and improve. And yet, so many of us both fail to seek feedback and fail to respond appropriately when we receive it. Learning to cultivate actionable feedback can not only help you improve your performance but can help to build strong relationships with others—whether subordinates, peers or superiors. Here some business and communication experts share their tips for cultivating actionable feedback.
Ask for It!
The secret to getting actionable feedback says Nick Glassett, founder of Origin Leadership Group, and others, is to ask for it. It’s not as obvious as it sounds, he says. “Managers and subordinates both will appreciate you seeking to improve, and will give you some feedback,” he says.
Lisa Sansom, an executive and leadership coach with LVS Consulting, agrees that the first, and very important step, in cultivating actionable feedback is to ask for it. This is particularly true for those in leadership roles, she says. “If you are in a leadership position, people may feel uncomfortable providing unsolicited feedback—so ask.” And, she adds, be specific about what you want to receive feedback on. “Asking: ‘So how do you think that board meeting went?’ isn’t going to get you much,” she says. “Asking: ‘What do you think I missed when I answered the board chair’s question about the difference in expenses from last year to this year?’ can improve your chances of getting constructive feedback.”
Receive Feedback Graciously
The next critical step: managing your response to the feedback you receive.
“Your attitude and reaction to the feedback are absolutely key,” says Glassett. “If you are defensive in any way, you can expect the honest feedback to stop right there. However, if you genuinely appreciate the criticism, take notes, and thank them from the bottom of your heart for the feedback, then you will begin to get more and more.”
Too often, our knee-jerk response to feedback, especially constructive feedback but sometimes also positive feedback, is to “explain it away.”
“The natural reaction to getting feedback is to rationalize why you did what you did or how things were ‘out of your control’,” says Maribel Aleman, a leadership and executive coach with Aleman & Associates. “However, that response does not signal a willingness to grow and learn—it signals a willingness to cover yourself and that is unappealing.”
Instead, Aleman suggests: “Simply say thank you.”
Like Glassett and Aleman, Sansom advises against being defensive about the feedback received. Instead, she suggests probing for additional information. “It’s beneficial to say something like: ‘Huh—that’s a new idea for me. Can you say more about that?’”
If, in the past, you have been known to react defensively to feedback, you may need to take a different approach in the future, suggests Aleman. If you’ve created mistrust in your ability to receive feedback, she says, “you should start by admitting that in the past you have had difficulty receiving feedback and state your commitment to learning from it now.”
Asking for options is another good strategy, Sansom says. “What do you think I could have done instead?,” for example. Work to get at specific information or behaviors that can help you improve your performance the next time. General feedback isn’t helpful. Specific feedback is.
Probing for additional information can help you gain clarity around the feedback you receive. Feedback like: “Good job,” really doesn’t provide you with insights on the types of behaviors you should work to exhibit in the future. Details can help.
Close the Loop
It is, of course, ultimately up to you what you do with any of the feedback you receive—ignore it, seek more, or make a commitment to change. But, suggests Sansom, when you decide to make a commitment to change it can be a good practice to follow up with those who shared their feedback with you. “Genuinely thank the person who has given you feedback and try the new behavior,” she suggests. “Circle back to the person who gave you feedback and let them know how it went, especially when it went well, and thank them again. Through creating these positive relationships, you increase your chances of more developmental positive constructive feedback again in the future.
Aleman agrees. “I often hear from managers how disheartened they are that they gave honest feedback and they never see any action on it,” she says. “Act on the feedback and then loop back to the person that gave it to you.” For instance: “I made sure to project my voice and watch my body language when presenting, I would love to get your feedback on how energetic I came across in the presentation?” This type of follow up, says Aleman, “will signal that you learned, practiced and are ready for the next step in the journey. More importantly, it builds trust that you are someone that is willing to do the hard work of asking for, listening to and acting on feedback. It signals that you are a leader worthy of championing.”
It takes time to build this type of honest and open feedback loop with others, Glassett says. His advice: “Go slow and expect to start small.”