As a new consultant full of enthusiasm and committed to my client, I received my first client task with gusto. I was asked to create a short and to-the-point document. I applied great attention to detail, executed the task with intention, and delivered my draft promptly. I sat across the desk from my supervisor as she frowned over the carefully executed document and I knew, that despite my careful execution of the task, she felt it needed work. Still enthusiastic, and not deterred, I raised my pen, poised to capture her feedback. “It’s just not quite right,” she said. Something is off here. I feel like we are missing the mark.” Deflated, and eager to get it right the second time I raced back to my desk to tackle version two. I pored over the original request. I analyzed every minute detail. I made sure I hit every salient point. And then, I found myself back in my supervisor’s office, across the desk. “It’s just not quite right,” she said. “Something is off here. I feel like we are missing the mark.”
Doubly deflated, I had an epiphany. Despite my enthusiasm, I had not given my supervisor a draft she could work with, and she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me so. We found ourselves in a stalemate. I wanted to do good work, and she was struggling to deliver the feedback I needed to produce that work.
Corner Alliance recently hosted training on delivering and receiving effective feedback. We learned most people want to receive effective feedback but are uncomfortable giving it. This especially rang true for me. I began to think that it would be great if every supervisor could receive training on providing effective feedback. Unfortunately, however, we often find ourselves receiving feedback from superiors who have not had the opportunity to participate in feedback training. As that is the case, knowing how to solicit effective feedback is just as important as knowing how to provide effective feedback.
Having realized that my supervisor needed help, I took a two-pronged approach to soliciting useful feedback: First, I tapped into my ability to ask good questions. I crafted questions that would pull information out of her such as:
- What part of the document is “not right?”
- How would you have written this section differently?
- Can you provide an example of a similar document that was approved?
The second prong of my approach was a little more complex. I actively built my relationship with this supervisor. I worked on earning her trust and developing a level of comfort in our meetings. I was supportive and positive in all situations. I did not push back when she provided feedback and I did not act defensive. As a result, she began to relax. As our trust built, an easy and professional friendship developed. She began to deliver candid but respectful feedback of my work.
Asking good questions pulled useful information out of my supervisor. Developing a good relationship with my supervisor meant she was comfortable pointing out areas for improvement in my work. As a result my work improved. She began to lean on me for larger and more important tasks. When my supervisor left for a new position, she recommended me to fill her role.
My two-pronged approach to soliciting effective feedback, although successful in my situation, will not be a fix for every feedback situation. The salient point, however, is that both giving and receiving feedback is hard. At least one person in the conversation must be fully committed to having a productive feedback conversation regardless of the level of discomfort. The responsibility for creating a effective feedback conversation does not lie with the giver of feedback alone, the recipient has equal, if not greater responsibility to ensure the feedback they receive is useful.
- Don’t get defensive
- Listen attentively
- Ask follow up questions that solicit specific information
- Ask for examples of good work or as how your supervisor might have done it differently
- Cultivate a respectful and honest relationship with those that will provide you with feedback