By Randy Hain

Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth. -Doc Rivers, NBA Coach & Former Player

When I was in the early years of my career, I recall frequently asking my bosses and co-workers, “Am I doing OK?” and “Do you have any advice for me?” in an effort to improve and accelerate my career. The generic feedback and accolades I typically received were rarely helpful and often frustrating; I yearned for something more candid and substantial to assist in my professional growth. This continued until one boss/mentor of mine challenged me to change how I was asking for feedback in order to get the input I desired and needed. His timely and helpful advice, which I have utilized for decades, is the basis for much of what you will read in this post.

As much as I personally value feedback, I have observed over most of my career that the idea of asking for feedback is difficult for some. The act of asking for candid feedback can indeed be one of the scariest things we do as professionals, but it does not have to be this way. We may fear the comments will be painful or our flaws will be exposed. Instead, I suggest we reframe our thinking to consider that the feedback we receive from colleagues and clients can help us adjust our approach, fix major issues before they get out of control, or stay the course. Feedback can and should be considered a gift, not something to avoid.

Here are seven best practices for gathering critical feedback:

  1. Make it timely. Ask for private feedback soon after the event/issue/conversation occurred. Don’t wait too long!
  2. Gather the feedback in person. Ask for feedback in person if at all possible. Virtually or via a phone call are acceptable, but not as effective as in-person. Do not ask for feedback in an email or by sending a survey.
  3. Be a continuous learner. Remember to approach your overall role as one of a continuous learner. This attitude will set you up to welcome the feedback process with open arms. We all have skills, behaviors, or technical expertise we can improve.
  4. Avoid defensiveness. Listen carefully to the feedback and consider the possible truth in what you are hearing. Avoid appearing defensive at all costs. This will require vulnerability and humility on your part as well as some degree of self-control.
  5. Clarify. Clarify what you’re hearing. If you’re not sure, ask for specific examples or clarification that will help you understand the feedback you’re receiving.
  6. Be specific. Always be specific when asking for feedback. For example: “I think I could have done a better job presenting in our staff meeting yesterday. Do you have one or two tips for how I can improve?” Specific questions like this will typically receive a substantive answer you can use versus a perfunctory “yes,” “no,” or “you are amazing!” that are typical responses to generic questions like “Is everything ok?”
  7. Sincerely thank the giver. It takes courage to speak candidly about difficult topics, and you want the person that gave the feedback to feel comfortable doing it again in the future. Remember, without feedback, we operate in a vacuum and restrict our own growth and development.

There is perhaps an eighth best practice we should consider: Give permission to be candid. I occasionally observe that asking someone for feedback is met with blank stares or surface accolades from the other person, which is obviously not helpful. Perhaps we should simply give key stakeholders in our work (and personal) circles permission to speak openly and candidly if they have something to say. Repeatedly giving this permission to be candid may eventually unlock useful feedback we can use. It will also help the giver feel psychologically safe as well as overcome any potential intimidation or discomfort they may be experiencing.

Another aspect of seeking feedback is accurately identifying our intended audience. We often gravitate to close friends and colleagues we like, but who rarely say anything critical (yes, there may be exceptions). To truly benefit from a candid feedback conversation, seek out people directly affected by your work who are not close personal friends or who have a reputation for being direct. The goal of seeking candid feedback should not be accolades and validation, but genuine opportunities for learning and growth.

Once you receive the feedback, consider these next steps:

  • Review everything you’ve heard and identify the changes you can make immediately.
  • Identify the changes that may require more time or additional help and develop a step-by-step strategy to put them into action.
  • Request time for another conversation with the feedback provider(s) in the coming weeks or months to assess your progress. This will help keep you accountable for applying the changes.

The helpful and candid feedback I have received over the years has been sometimes difficult to hear—but ultimately transformative in my professional and personal development. I encourage you to put these best practices to work and notice the impact these feedback discussions have on the way you approach every aspect of your work and life.