We’ve talked before about how effective feedback can make your team more productive. But asking for feedback at work is just as hard, if not harder, than giving it, because it means exposing a certain level of vulnerability. So how can you and your team learn to ask for feedback effectively, regardless of your level in the organization?

Do you really want the feedback? 

Before looking at how to ask for feedback, you have to assess whether you actually want to receive feedback. It’s very common (not just in the workplace, but in our personal lives as well) to ask for feedback but not really wanting it. 

If you think about it, it makes sense. We’re taught early on that feedback is a good thing, so we want to hear others’ perspectives to enrich ours. But at the same time, the new information we gather from asking for feedback at work can require us to change our plans or direction. This can cause resistance to feedback, simply because most of us are resistant to change. 

Another aspect of this is realizing whether you actually do need the feedback. Let’s say a decision is already made and you know the chances of changing the outcome are pretty scarce - why ask for feedback in this instance? What’s the point of asking for it if you’re not going to (be able to) take it?

You don’t want to ask for feedback (and especially not because it’s what’s culturally expected), and then get upset once you receive it. On the other hand, you always want to be prepared to take the feedback into account, to really consider what is being suggested. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you will end up following the feedback ad litteram, but that you will simply listen to it. 

Be conscious about what your attitudes toward feedback are. Don’t ask for it unless you really believe that you could benefit from hearing other perspectives. And it’s also ok not to ask for feedback if you don’t actually want it or need it, but you're doing it just as a social convention. 

Be open and specific 

If you simply invite someone to give you feedback, you might often be disappointed. That’s why you should take the time to formulate how you ask for feedback. 

If you think it will be helpful to the other person, then you might want to give them a quick outline of the reason you’re asking for feedback, and what kind of values stand behind your actions. This will help them place themselves in your position, and empower them to offer feedback effectively. 

Ask open ended, specific questions. And be clear whether you’re asking for feedback about your processes, behaviours or relationships. Here are some examples of how to ask for specific feedback using open ended questions: 

  • What opportunities do you see for me to handle my projects more effectively? (asking for feedback on process)
  • How could I do a better job of following through with the tasks I prioritize? (asking for feedback on behaviour)
  • If you were in my position, what would you do to show team members more appreciation? (asking for feedback on relationships)

Don’t try to explain yourself 

Trying to explain yourself when you have received feedback is a major blunder. 

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”  ~Unknown

It’s a natural urge to try to try to explain the reason behind your thinking when you receive feedback that you feel is attacking you. When you ask for feedback, you are exposing yourself to some degree. And maybe the feedback feels too brusque, or personal. 

It doesn’t matter though. You are not responsible for how the other person delivers feedback, but you’re responsible for your reactions to it. Resist the urge to defend yourself by explaining why you did things a certain way. 

In their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone explore the three kinds of feedback, and how to give them and receive them.

Of course, asking for feedback at work is never easy. Neither is giving the right kind of feedback to your team members. But whether you’re giving or receiving it, there’s probably a lot we all can stand to learn. There’s really no formula to giving and receiving feedback, because people differ so much in their reactions; it’s all experience and emotional intelligence.