why you should ask for feedback, even if you’re scared

I loved this comment  about asking for feedback from a reader in last week’s open thread:

I just wanted to share that, one year into my first full time job post graduation, I finally got up the courage to ask a normally fairly uncommunicative boss for feedback, and it’s worked out so far! The feedback was more negative than I expected (given that no one has said anything to me aside from pointing out what I thought was the occasional mistake), so at first I was devastated, but then I read AAM’s post on receiving criticism gracefully and swallowed my pride and asked for specifics … and now not only do I feel better about my job because I know what I need to improve instead of only guessing and feeling alternatively great/terrible at my job, but my bosses are actually being a lot nicer to me! Plus I’ve already made a few changes that everyone has approved of, so even if this week started out kind of crappy, I actually feel kind of hopeful, because even if I don’t want to go further in this field, having a great reference later on would be helpful.

I was so surprised by how I reacted. Right after the negative feedback, I was so upset because I couldn’t help but take it personally, and it took a night and a day before I could step back and realize it really was the best thing — there were times when I felt like The Worst at my job, and I realized having this feedback (with the promise of more concrete examples later, really helped because some of the things I was worried about apparently weren’t even on the radar — and I could make plans on what I needed to improve! And I figure things can only go up from here.

If you’re wondering how to get critical feedback yourself, here’s some advice on how to do it.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Kobayashi*

    Great post. The first time I heard someone refer to honest feedback as a “gift,” I realized that is exactly what it is! Anyone who gives you honest feedback is giving you information you didn’t have before, and that kind of information is extremely valuable and, often, very hard to come by. Don’t waste it. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but whenever I get that type of information, I really consider it, and I never begrudge the person who gave it as long as I believe they were honest and didn’t go out of their way to be cruel.

    1. Vicki*

      “I never begrudge the person who gave it as long as I believe they were honest and didn’t go out of their way to be cruel.”

      And there’s the rub…

      Not always cruel, perhaps, but ignorant, foolish, shortsighted, thoughtless…

  2. Anonymous*

    I set up a meeting for feedback and to touch base on how I was doing and all I got out of them was that I was the best person they’d ever had in this position (and reasons why). I specifically asked almost exactly the way you phrased it in the linked post above — but still didn’t get any critical feedback. :(

    1. Anon II*

      This is what I get from my boss too. It’s frustrating because I’m sure there are things I can work on or that I’m not doing as well as I could be, but he just glosses over things and tells me what a good job I’m doing. No one is perfect and there is always something to improve, even if it’s small.

    2. Dan*

      If you’re easy to work with and get quality work done on time, I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to give you critical or negative feedback!

      Do you want your boss to tell you to come in at 9 sharp? Some people would say “I do good work on time and get along great with everybody, so who cares if I come in at 9:10?”

      I’m a big picture type of guy. I don’t want people criticizing things that don’t affect my job or perception in the office — it makes it harder to separate Things That Must Be Corrected from “I have to find *something* to fill in the box but I really don’t care.” I want a job where I can be me AND do good work.

      Likewise, if you kept pushing me for “negative” feedback, and I couldn’t find anything that really bothered me or my superiors, then I’d tell you to knock it off and stop pushing.

      FWIW, at my last job, I mastered the “needs improvement” box. I’m able to find things that aren’t personal criticisms nor severe limitations to my job and phrase it in a way that comes across as “It would be icing on the cake for me and the company if I learned x…”

    3. Ruffingit*

      I think there’s a misconception that there must always be something you can improve. Maybe not. Maybe, in your particular job, your bosses are truly happy with how you’re doing and the way you’re doing things is just fine with them. I’d take that and go with it. Why be looking for criticism? Sure, there are things we all could improve in some areas in our life, but in this place and this time and this job, apparently you’re doing just fine. We’re trained to go with the mantras of “No one is perfect, we could always improve” that we often forget to take the positive and be OK with that. Not everything needs to have a yin/yang thing going on.

      1. Jessa*

        It’s not so much looking, it’s that it’s very often not true. Bosses don’t want to give negative feedback (well GOOD ones do, but they’re not all Alison,) and what happens is you ask, and they say nothing, and then way later you get blasted with “x,y,z…bad stuff.” Or you end up on the first to fire/lay off list with no idea why.

        The issue is that people do not believe they’re perfect and when bosses aren’t adequately explaining “Look, you come in on time, you do your work without needing corrections, and when I give you a task you get on it, or ask for help. I don’t need you to do anything else, that’s the job here.” People think they’re not being told something.

        Also the whole category of annual reviews where “improves, etc.” is really hard to do if they don’t give you something to improve ON. Honestly if the worker is not meeting or exceeding all of their review markers, they should know it WAY before the review even if it’s nitpicky. It’s unreasonable to mark someone “meets – needs improvement,” when they didn’t have anything TO improve. That should automatically be an “exceeds – worker had nothing to work on this year.” And if the boss can’t honestly write that then the worker is RIGHT, there are things they can do and should be told.

        1. Ruffingit*

          I agree bosses should tell you things before it gets to the “you suck and are the first to be fired” point. But some will, some won’t. I’m addressing my comment more to the people who do look for criticism, who are constantly on guard thinking they can improve. Overall, that is generally true, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you’re just genuinely doing a great job. And, if that is the case, take Artemesia’s suggestion below to use it as a jumping off point for skill development or better projects.

    4. Artemesia*

      I think when a boss tells you you are fabulous, that is the moment to inquire about new challenges to stretch and build new skills or to prepare for advancement. When one has mastered a job, it is time for a new job or new challenges. So go into such a feedback session with some long range goals and be prepared to ask the boss to help you strategize about how to build in that directions whether through new projects or mastery of new skills.

      It also puts your desire for advancement on their radar in a positive way.

  3. Kobayashi*

    When someone first mentioned to me that feedback is “gift,” it really opened my eyes. Honest feedback is information I may not have had before. Incidentally, on multiple occasions I post comments and they completely vanish. They never show up at all. I don’t get any kind of a weird error message. Not sure why that happens.

  4. Anonalicious*

    Thank you so much for the link to that post. That is almost exactly the position that I’m in. I want to start the transition to leadership/management but I can’t seem to do it, nor can I get good feedback on what to do or improve to accomplish that.

  5. Anon1973*

    I asked for feedback once and was reprimanded. “Slow down missy! I hired you because I am WAY too busy with my current tasks. If I have to stop to give you feedback then I can’t get my other tasks done. Your work may sit on my desks for months/years before I can get to it.”

    Yes, this actually happened. Yes, I posted this to AAM before. Yes, I have the e-mail still, all these years later. Yes, I was talked down to by someone younger than me. Yes, I quit that job. Yes, that manager was later let go.

    1. Adam*

      “Your work may sit on my desks for months/years before I can get to it.”

      Here’s hoping you didn’t work in health care.

    2. Celeste*

      How demotivating to be told that your work was of so little consequence. Good for you for not staying any longer than you had to.

    3. AAA*

      Is it *ever* okay to talk down to someone? I don’t see age here as the issue, just basic rudeness.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I totally agree. Never OK to talk down to or berate or do any of those kinds of things. It doesn’t get you anywhere good anyway because once you start in with that sort of tone or nastiness, the message is lost because you’ve pissed off the person you’re talking to.

    4. Artemesia*

      LOL Great story. I too have saved a few memos I have received over the years that were hard to believe. e.g. I was once asked to do a grant proposal focusing on the innovativeness of our project plan. The feedback I got was ‘It needs to be cutting edge and innovative but also needs to be something our chief competitors are already committed to and doing.’ The man who wrote the memo understood the irony; the people within the organization who insisted that the proposal be adapted to these specs were dead serious. And yeah I wrote the innovative project proposal that everyone else was doing and we got funded.

  6. Adam*

    Is it ever appropriate to ask your co-workers for feedback, or does that add an awkward angle to the office relationship?

    1. Dan*

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you should be regularly soliciting *specific* feedback from your coworkers. Not necessarily “how am I doing” general stuff, because that can be kind of awkward, but if they have to use/review your work, you pretty much should be asking what they think of it. If that’s too general, some pointed questions about how X was done or could be improved would be fine.

    2. Anonymous*

      I have given coworkers specific feedback on tasks and if they ask me directly I’m very honest. (I generally try to make sure I put lots of, hey this is just me and I’m not your boss kinds of things around it.) But I also have people doing work for me, so I really appreciate when they want to make sure they are getting it done correctly and when they do I have always made it a point to go to their (or our when appropriate) boss and say, X was a problem, X is resolved since Wakeen and I talked about it.

      But I’d be really careful in general because coworkers don’t always know all the things you need to be doing so it might be appropriate to say, “Are the handles for the teapots that I’m making coming out the way they should?” It isn’t a good idea to say, “Am I working on teapot handles enough?”

    3. Parfait*

      If you have a good working relationship, sure. I have a feedback-friendly relationship with a peer and it’s invaluable. We have different strengths and different perspectives and it’s helpful to share them with each other.

      I am not sure I’d go around asking random colleagues for their feedback on your work in general, but I could see asking them for feedback on specific ares where your work impacts them most. Maybe that weekly report you provide them would be easier to use in another format? Maybe they really wish you only had your traditional status meeting monthly instead of weekly? Who knows unless you ask.

    4. Jen RO*

      Yes! It probably won’t work in all types of jobs and all types of relationships, but I used to do this regularly at my previous job – at first, I was training a coworker and reviewing her writing, but afterwards, as she got more experience, I also asked her to review *my* writing. This continued for years, even when our relationship changed (she was promoted to team lead after a while). And we actually still do it on occasion, on IM, even though we don’t work together anymore.

      On the other hand, yesterday I talked to the person I replaced in my current job (she quit voluntarily) and she asked me for feedback on her work. Well, truth be told, her writing kinda sucked, but I’m not going to give her this kind of feedback after “talking” to her (on IM) for 10 minutes! I just beat around the bush and said that I didn’t work on the same stuff as she had, so I couldn’t form an opinion.

  7. George*

    Dan, I agree with you. I’m an administrator working at a university where most work environments are lack back and some an “anti-corporate” atmosphere. I’ve asked for criticism from some bosses only to have them “sugar coat” their feedback. So, I asked co-workers and administrators outside my department, who I generally worked with from time to time, and asked for specific criticism such as “How can I communicate more effectively?”, “Is the information in my presentations flow in context with my topic?”, “What’s my facial expressions when I’m presenting?”. I ask those individuals who I know will provide honest feedback. Also, make sure that your questions are specific to the area you want feedback from.

    Good article! All the best.

    1. Anonymous*

      That’s a good idea, to ask for very specific feedback like that. That way it takes the pressure off of them to have to say “well, now that you mention ways to improve, you could communicate more effectively.” Instead, you’re introducing the area for improvement and just asking how. I like it.

  8. Steve G*

    It would help if the OP included some examples of what the boss said that was insulting to them, but the boss never brought up. I just would be curious.

    Thank you!

  9. Jerry*

    I always liked Marshall Goldsmith’s philosophy of feedforward rather than feedback. Much easier to take and actually use to change direction.

  10. Jessa*

    I once had to go to a supervisor and say “Look, I get you’re busy, but absence of negative feedback does NOT mean everything is going okay, am I doing okay?” They said yes, but it didn’t occur to them that going months without indicating people were doing fine, leads people to wonder if there’s anything going on. An absence of a pattern of ANY feedback, positive or negative, is a problem.

    The issue in this case was it was a temp job where permanent people got their statistics/feedback monthly, but there was NO mechanism to give the same info to the temps. So nobody had any idea if we were at goals or on the verge of being told “don’t come in tomorrow.”

    The question I asked actually caused them to print the temp stats with the permanent people stats after that, also to give more general feedback to the temp staff.

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