Stacey Hanke asked on twitter:
Why is it that when I ask for feedback, it’s never constructive. It’s always vague “good job, nice work.” What does it take to get thorough feedback?
Feedback feels like confrontation to most people and they don’t want to risk starting a fight with you. They’ve learned many people are just fishing for praise when they ask for feedback, so that’s what they provide. They don’t want to hurt your feelings and they want out of a dangerous conversation.
Some people are more honest with feedback than others. Seek them out. And it’s up to you to cultivate trust with someone to get to the point where they feel safe enough to give you honest criticism. Consider the cliche “do I look fat in this bathing suit?” – who answers this with complete honesty? You’ll rarely get great feedback from a stranger, much less someone you know who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.
There are five ways to improve the quality of feedback you get:
- Who you ask. What coworker do you have a strong enough relationship with that they’ll take the risk? Seek them out on something small, push them to be honest, and then genuinely reward them. Repeat, and over time you’ll can take on bigger feedback requests. And of course, ask someone with expertise on the subject at hand, not just your friend.
- How you ask. Ask a vague question and you get a vague answer. Instead ask focused questions like “How can I make this better?”, “What did I miss?” or “does this design solve these three objectives?” This gives the other person something to aim for. You, as the feedback asker, have to frame what kind of feedback you desire, simplifying the work for the other person.
- When you ask. If you want thoughtful feedback give people the time to do it. Set up a meeting where you forward your work, or questions, ahead of time. This shows you’re serious and that you’re willing to give them the chance to both look at your work and think over their feedback. If you catch a random person in the hallway and shove something in their face, you’re assuming they want to be interrupted from everything else they planned to do that day. You’ll get more thoughtful feedback if the timing of when you ask is thoughtful.
- Where you ask. We are social creatures and behave differently depending on where we are. You get different feedback in a meeting with 10 people than you would over coffee or a beer after work. Different people have different comfort zones, but generally the more informal the situation the more open people are about their opinions.
- How you respond. Everyone thinks they’re great at hearing feedback, but most people handle it poorly. They debate, they argue, and give off body language of offense. If you really want feedback you have to be prepared to shut up and listen. Ask qualifying questions “do you mean X, or Y?” and seek to understand their opinion more precisely, rather than to change their minds. And make sure to thank them sincerely (something that might only be possible after you’ve cooled down).
Also see How To Give And Receive Criticism.