Last week I sent an email to a number of people I’ve worked and interacted with over the past year asking for their feedback, to help me identify ways to improve. This was something I’d been planning on doing for a while - since before I decided to start this project - and not something I thought I was particularly uncomfortable doing. But then I noticed that this email had been sat, unsent, in my “drafts” folder for almost 2 weeks...
This made me realise how rarely most people actually ask for feedback from others. Seeking feedback seems to be a perfect example of something we tend to feel uncomfortable doing, so avoid, but could benefit from hugely if we could overcome that discomfort.
What’s so useful about asking for feedback? If it’s such a good thing to do, why don’t people do it more? How can we make asking for feedback easier?
Why ask for feedback?
Through asking for feedback, I learnt some useful things about myself: especially about peoples’ first impressions of me. Many of the really helpful suggestions I received were things I was somewhat aware of, but hadn’t got round to addressing or putting into action yet. I’m now more motivated to make improvements in these areas of my life, and more convinced that doing so will be worthwhile. For example, taking time in the evenings to reflect on my day is something I’ve been considering doing for a while, but only actually started doing recently after a couple of people made the suggestion to me explicitly.
No-one’s perfect. There are probably hundreds of ways in which we could each improve: by eliminating bad habits, developing good habits, or simply by spending our time a little differently. But it can be hard for us to notice these things ourselves. Other people often notice things that we don’t from a more impartial perspective.
There’s also just the fact that we can’t really know how we come across to other people until we ask them. We have some model of how we appear to others, based on the way people respond to us and act around us, but it’s likely this model is flawed or at least incomplete. So if you want to improve the way others’ perceive you: to appear more confident, smarter, more attractive - you’re going to have to first get feedback from people about how you currently appear.
Why don’t we ask for feedback more?
We're scared of criticism.
The most immediate and natural explanation for avoiding feedback is that we’re afraid of being criticised. If we ask people for feedback, some of it might be negative - and negative feedback can hurt. But being aware of your faults and weaknesses is the first step towards reducing them (provided, of course, you are able to do something about them.)
Have you ever got home at the end of the day to realise you’ve got something on your teeth, or pen on your face? You realise that it must have been on there all day, that several people must have noticed it, but that no-one told you. Don’t you wish someone had mentioned it, so that you could go and rub it off? You might have felt a bit silly about it briefly, but not knowing about it wasn’t going to make it go away.
The same applies to all kinds of criticism. Not realising that you come across as rude or dismissive to new people won’t change the fact that you give that impression - and at least by knowing about it you can actively start to compensate, by being especially friendly when you meet people in future. Not to suggest, of course, that anyone reading this post would ever come across as rude or dismissive. I'm sure you all make a great first impression - but just to be sure, you should ask people!
The only difference between this kind of criticism, and someone telling you you have something on your face, is that it’s more personal, so might hurt a bit more to hear. Finding out you’ve got pen on your face doesn’t really threaten your self-image, but hearing that people find you rude might.
Asking for feedback can seem kind of weird
I don’t think it’s just fear of criticism that makes us avoid seeking feedback, although it is a big part of it. Another reason we might not seek feedback is simply because it’s not something people tend to do often, so it goes against social norms.
I noticed when I was asking for feedback myself I was sending the email to quite a specific group of people, who I knew would see “asking for feedback” as a normal, and even quite a respectable thing to do. These were mostly people I’ve worked with over the past year, in a culture where reviews and feedback (both formal and informal) are quite common. People I didn’t send the email to include some close friends and family - even though they seem like the sort of people who might have really useful things to say. There were also a few people I did send the email to who I don’t know that well but I expected might have useful comments, whose names I felt noticeably less comfortable typing in the “send” field.
This made me realise there are certain social norms that apply to asking for feedback. It’s much more acceptable to ask your boss for feedback on your performance than it is to ask someone you’ve just met for feedback on your personality, for example, even though the latter might give you equally useful information. Some of the most useful feedback I received was actually from people I don’t know all that well.
How can we make asking for feedback easier?
I think fear of criticism is at least partly rooted in having a fixed mindset: thinking that our traits and abilities are fixed and there’s nothing we can do to change them. If you consciously try to adopt a growth mindset - believing that you can develop and change abilities through dedication and hard work - every piece of criticism becomes an opportunity to improve. So every time you receive a piece of feedback or criticism, ask yourself the question, “How does this information help me to improve? How can I use this to become better?”
I’ve personally found that the more I develop a growth mindset, the more I’m able to react positively to things that I might previously have seen as criticisms. For example, I had a feedback meeting at work a couple of months ago where I realised I’d made some mistakes in management when I was overstretched. A year ago, I’m pretty sure I would have reacted to this feeling a little despondent and discouraged about my management abilities. But I genuinely came out of this meeting feeling practically excited about the fact I’d found some concrete ways in which I could improve as a manager.
(To find out more about the benefits of a growth mindset, and how to change your reaction to criticism, I’d highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.)
Some other useful ways I’ve found to make asking for feedback less scary:
Start by asking people to give you feedback in areas of life that are less personal, and less likely to threaten your self-image: certain areas of your work, for example, rather than starting by asking for feedback on core personality traits. As you get used to taking potentially negative feedback in less personal areas, you can then build up to start asking for feedback in more and more personal areas.
It’s also really important to ask for both positive and negative feedback together - not only will negative feedback be much easier to take if it’s served alongside compliments, it’s also much easier for the person giving the feedback: criticising people doesn’t feel too great, either! I actually made this mistake myself when I first sent out my email - not explicitly asking for positive feedback. I was concerned about looking like I was fishing for compliments, but someone quickly made this point and suggested I add a positive feedback question.
Asking for specific, actionable feedback (especially when it’s negative) can be a good way to make sure you elicit useful comments, rather than ones that are simply going to make you feel bad about yourself.
Spencer Greenberg also has some really great advice on how to process criticism by breaking it down into different types, to understand when feedback is accurate and when it might not be. This raises the important point that you shouldn’t necessarily take all criticism you receive seriously - some pieces of feedback may be much more useful and relevant than others, so it’s worth thinking about how to distinguish them (I’d highly recommend reading Spencer’s post for this.)
- I think we could all benefit from asking for feedback from others more often.
- If you can begin to change your mindset to see feedback (even negative) as valuable information that will allow you to improve, asking for feedback becomes much less uncomfortable - maybe even enjoyable!
- Other things I've found useful are: starting small (with less personal areas or people we're more comfortable with), asking for positive as well as negative feedback, and asking for specific, actionable feedback to make sure it's as constructive as possible.
- And of course, I hope that the more people make a habit of asking for feedback, the more socially acceptable it will become, making it easier for us all to do!
If you want to give me any feedback you can fill out the google form here! I’d also love feedback on this and any other blog posts I’ve written, so I can make them better. What did you like and dislike about this post? Were there any points that you found particularly interesting/useful? Which parts were boring or could I have cut? What did you think of the structure/writing style/topic/length?