Feedback on how you’re going at work makes an essential contribution to your development as a professional because it provides insights into how you and your work are experienced by others. Used wisely, what you learn from feedback can improve working relationships, increase productivity and enable change.
Whilst most professionals enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done, many find critical feedback hard to take, especially if they judge it to be unfair or unjustified. Critical feedback, however constructive the intent, is then experienced as threatening and this can lead to people become defensive, blocking the learning potential.
Getting the most out of the feedback that is available to you as a professional involves making sure that you are really open to all of it – good, bad and in between. Being open to feedback involves being willing to take on board feedback from a range of sources, give it careful consideration and, where appropriate, to act on it. It also involves managing your internal gut reactions especially when feedback is not what you expect.
When professionals are truly open to feedback they are far better placed for making informed decisions about how to do their job, including how to relate to others at work.
To ensure that you are really open to feedback it helps to:
- be on the lookout for feedback coming from different directions and in a variety of forms; and
- demonstrate your openness to feedback.
It can also be useful to know how to help others be open to feedback from you.
Looking out for feedback opportunities
Being truly open to feedback involves being alert for, and paying attention to, feedback coming from different directions and in a variety of forms.
Formal and informal feedback from your manager is always important – whether or not you agree with it! You can read more about what that should include in the Professionals Australia guide Performance management: principles, practice and pitfalls. And there is more about the value of feedback in Staff performance. Are you investing enough time in feedback?
But your manager should never be the only source of feedback about what you do and how you work. There are many others around you at work and beyond work who can also be valuable sources of feedback – for example, colleagues in your immediate work area, others with whom you interact from time to time, and people external to your organisation such as customers, suppliers and people in your network.
Being truly open to feedback also includes being on the lookout for feedback of the non-verbal variety. Facial expressions, body language and patterns of behavior can all be relevant. These types of feedback can be tricky to read and it’s usually wise to proceed cautiously and diplomatically when responding to something that could be feedback. But the effort can be well worth it.
For example, in an informal catch up with his new manager, a public sector professional was responding to questions put to him by the manager about how a particular case had been handled. The professional’s background in social work had made him a keen observer of non-verbal signals. As he responded to the question he observed a puzzled look spreading over the manager’s face. It might have signaled disapproval but the professional knew that he should not just assume what was going on in another person’s mind. Instead he paused in his detailed response to enquire if he was responding adequately to the manager’s question.
From the manager’s response this professional learned that the manager was looking only for a big picture, much briefer response to his questions. This short exchange and other similar ones ultimately helped build a productive, mutually satisfying working relationship for two people with widely differing conversational and working styles.
Sometimes feedback comes your way without the need to ask and you need only pay attention and listen. In other situations it helps to be ready with some open questions that invite the sort of feedback that will be helpful to you. For example, after taking the lead in a meeting with a prospective new customer, an IT professional both offered feedback and invited it from his manager, who had also attended the meeting, by saying “Thanks for giving me the chance to run the meeting. I’m keen to hear how you think it went”.
Demonstrating openness to feedback
How open to feedback you consider yourself to be matters far less than whether or not you are perceived to be open. Being really open to feedback involves demonstrating that you welcome and value it. Doing the following will help convey this to others:
Ask questions that invite candour
When you are soliciting feedback it helps to be ready with questions that express genuine interest in the other’s opinion and that pave the way for them to be frank with you. This is especially important for professionals who want to avoid being perceived as defensive in response to adverse feedback. For example ‘I’d like to hear what you thought of how I ran that session to help me plan the next one’ offers a rationale for requesting feedback and opens the door for an honest response.
When feedback is being offered, it’s a perfect opportunity to practice your active listening skills. This involves body language and facial expression that convey interest in what is being said and it means not interrupting or arguing with what is being said, even if you disagree. The article Credulous Listening provides tips and techniques on listening attentively.
Whether or not you agree with the feedback you are being offered, it’s important to acknowledge the provider and the information provided. A simple ‘thank-you for finding the time to do this’ can be all that it takes to convey your appreciation and leave the door open for more feedback down the track.
Learn as much as you can
Listening attentively allows you to focus on hearing the feedback without putting yourself under pressure to defend your position. Allowing yourself to absorb what is being said then puts you in a strong position for discovering more. Be curious about what you are being told and ask questions that invite more information.
Remember that the feedback is yours to act on or ignore
Unless you’re faced with feedback that means your job is on the line if you don’t meet certain expectations, it’s helpful to remember that feedback is yours to act on – now or later, to consider along with other feedback or to discard. Keeping in mind that the choice is yours can make it far easier to hear well-intentioned feedback without leaping to your own defense if you don’t agree with it. Sometimes too, the significance of a particular piece of feedback is not immediately evident – it can pay to ‘sleep on it’.
Helping others be open to feedback
If you’re reading this article and wishing that your boss would be more open to feedback from you, it might be tempting to get them to read this or a similar article in the hope it will make them change. Whilst that might do some good as a last resort, a far more effective approach involves thinking about what you want to achieve and how you are going about it. The following formula can assist:
First, think about what you aim to achieve. Then, ask yourself how your boss could benefit from responding to your feedback. Now think about how to initiate a conversation without coming across as threatening, intimidating or a waste of his/her time.
For example, a recent graduate was keen to make a good impression during her first year of full-time work. She had been working hard to build good working relationships with team members, some of whom had far more experience. But she had been finding her team leader’s attitude towards her increasingly challenging. He routinely postponed or cancelled their catch up meetings and rarely spoke to her otherwise. She had counseled herself that he might be extremely busy and that the apparent avoidance had nothing to do with her performance. She was nevertheless wary of the personal risk associated with deferring any feedback he might give her to the annual performance review which was still six months away.
After a coaching conversation with her mentor, she initiated contact with her manager, requesting a meeting to discuss her expected contribution to the team’s work and to invite his feedback about how she was going. Ahead of the meeting she prepared a few questions to help the conversation along if necessary. However they proved unnecessary because, due to her request for a meeting at a later date, her manager had had the opportunity to think about her performance to date and was ready to offer feedback on a range of topics. During their conversation he expressed gratitude that she had taken the initiative, admitting that he had been preoccupied with some personal issues. Her actions ultimately benefited other team members who had been privately critical of the manager’s approach but had not been willing to broach the matter with him.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this article, the following articles and guides are available on the Professionals Australia website.
About the author
Dr Janet Fitzell, a director of FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au), is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational and professional development.