Getting Useful Feedback

Steve Coats

Q: Whenever I ask for feedback, people around me will never tell me anything. Their eyes go right down toward their feet, or they say everything is fine. What am I supposed to do?

A: When receiving LPI feedback, many people have bumped into our old friend, question # 16, which reads: "Asks people for feedback on how my actions affect other peoples’ performance." Across the database, this is the lowest rated item on the inventory. This question also is ranked among the lowest with the vast majority of people to whom I provide LPI feedback. And this is a common question I frequently hear about this item, especially from bosses.

First, accept the fact that somewhere in this silence lurks an issue of trust. The trust issue may not even be much about you. People may be hesitant to respond because they witness integrity issues in the broader organization, or because they were punished for being candid in previous, similar experiences. However, do not assume that you are the victim of other circumstances and not the cause! You must accept that in some way, you are contributing to their reticence.

One of the biggest factors in trust is intentions. Think about how willing you are to totally commit yourself, if you question or doubt someone else’s intentions or motives? The voice in your head poses some pretty thoughtful questions when this occurs. "What is really going on here? Is she trying to sacrifice me to make herself look good? What is the real reason he is asking me to get involved in this project?" You know the questions, because you have likely been in a situation where you have heard them in your head.

So perhaps you are not getting a response from others when you ask for feedback because they are too busy trying to answer similar questions about your intentions in their minds – "why am I really being asked for this feedback" or "is it absolutely safe to be truthful?" Think about the caution flags in your head when someone else, especially a boss, asks you to be genuinely forthcoming about his/her deficiencies? It is not easy, is it?

In the end, it is leaders who must make it easier and safer. With that in mind, here are some immediate options you can try:

  1. Make your request less formal. Don't close people in your office and seek their feedback as if it were part of a strict, performance management process. Maybe it can start as a brief encounter in the hallway or lunchroom: "I am struggling with how to better show people that I appreciate their work. Can we get together later today to talk about that?"
  2. Seek feedback in smaller, more specific pieces: "As you all know, I have a tendency to micromanage the daylights out of people. I would like to stop, or at least slow it down. What are a couple of suggestions you can provide me?
  3. Confront the elephant head on: "This may not feel like a safe environment to provide helpful feedback, especially upward. But I really need your help to be better. Leave a note on my desk or coax a stranger to leave your feedback on my voicemail. One day, we will get to a point where we all feel safe to give each other feedback in a more open, personal way."

And then a few last reminders. First, give people some extended time to think about and prepare their responses. Even the stereotypical high extravert, who enjoys the noise of immediate conversation, might appreciate the pause, so as to not feel being put on the spot. Extended time here means later in the day or week, not in the next 5 seconds.

Finally, continue to do what you can to demonstrate the integrity of your intentions to improve, by taking action and publicly reporting back. Don't ask for feedback only after you receive LPI feedback. Make it part of your monthly meetings. Periodically, let others know what you are attempting to do to change and what you continue to struggle with. Continue to ask for help. And good luck.

Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Certified Master, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com.

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