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The Four Stages of Good Feedback

Why is it so frickin hard to provide people with valuable feedback, let alone getting meaningful feedback from others? One of two things tends to be the case: we either don’t know how to ask for good feedback, or we don’t know how to give it. In this post we will explore how to build a feedback muscle and become a feedback magnet.

When I first started working with a coach, I got a single homework assignment during one of our sessions. I was to ask my entire team, i.e. the entire company, to share with me two things that I’m doing well. It was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had to do, but I was surprised by how forthcoming people were about things they appreciated in me. It ended up feeling pretty good to go through their feedback.

Asking for feedback on what I’m doing well isn’t in my German nature. We’re culturally wired to look at the things that aren’t going well, implying that everything else is working well. So we don’t need to waste a second pointing out what should already be obvious. We’re focused on criticizing, certainly with the ultimate goal of getting the best possible result. But our approach can be off-putting to different cultures, especially those where the focus is only on things that are going well, and where the rest is toned down so much that it’s barely recognizable as criticism at all.

My coach didn’t just ask me to do something uncomfortable, counter to what I’d usually do. She also nudged me to ask for concrete feedback focusing on one specific thing: what I’m doing well. That way, I could gather useful feedback that helped me understand what value I bring to the company, and what I need to do more of.

With this little exercise, I didn’t just learn that sometimes it’s worth pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. It wasn’t just useful to understand what value I brought. It was a helpful exercise that helped me understand how you can get actionable feedback.

In my experience, feedback follows a progression through different stages. In my case, I started at the simplest of all stages. I didn’t ask for any feedback whatsoever for myself. Everyone had stuff to do, and so did I, so why bother folks with something that mundane and time-consuming?

But not asking for any feedback means that you’re running blind. You won’t find out whether what you’re doing has any meaning at all, whether it’s made the impact you were hoping for, or whether you’ve considered all the perspectives you have available, building the best possible outcome based on diverse input.

So what do you do? Ask for feedback.

Stage 1: Feedback Welcome

As the CEO, I was trying my hardest to assemble a leadership team that would work together to run the company. A key part of this work is to work together on ideas, plans, and strategies, and making sure that every one of them considers the needs of not just one department but the entire company. That means collaborating with others, getting their feedback, gathering different perspectives, and making changes to address their questions, concerns, and suggestions.

I encouraged them to share early drafts of documents, ideas, and processes to get feedback from the others. They were hesitant to share early work, fearing that others would point out holes in their approach that they haven’t yet filled in. Or they feared that the feedback would be negative. People just wanted to get to work, present the finished document, put whatever it contained into action, and move on. Who could blame them? Everyone had plenty of stuff they wanted to get done.

When the documents were eventually shared with the group, they were accompanied by something like, “Feedback welcome. I’d like to wrap this up by the end of next week.” As time ran out, they hadn’t gotten any feedback beyond a simple, “Looks good to me” or, worse, a thumbs up emoji. Needless to say, they were frustrated.

There is one good thing about how they asked for feedback: they put a time limit on it. It may not always be a realistic time expectation and may need to be adjusted. But being clear on when you want the feedback process done is useful information for the group. It helps them prioritize against the backdrop of all the other work they have to do. Even when asking for feedback it’s important to remember that people need to context-switch all the time, that, as soon as they read your message, their mind has already moved on to other priorities.

But, as for the important part of their request, asking for feedback by stating something like “Feedback welcome” or “I would love your feedback” is a guarantee to not get any meaningful feedback at all.

The onus is put on everyone else to think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to improve the outcome. Given that everyone is focused on their own tasks, they likely feel like they can’t really expend much time to really think through your document, understand its full scope and implications. The cognitive load is already high. Adding more to the pile distracts everyone from the work that’s in front of them.

The end result is that the person asking for feedback isn’t getting any. They may also falsely assume that because they didn’t get any feedback, that their work is good to go. Which can make for some upsetting moments in the group when it later turns out there was a hidden caveat in a document that nobody really thought about, or it included a key dependency on another department without really making that clear.

They were sloppy in their review, you might say. But do keep in mind that feedback involves at least two parties: the person asking for and the people giving feedback. The best feedback comes from all parties spending time thinking about what feedback would be most helpful and interacting accordingly. That requires candor and trust, as well as active and continuous collaboration.

As the person on the receiving end of a feedback request, what can you do to sharpen your feedback muscle? You could ask the person seeking feedback a few questions to determine what would be particularly helpful. Or you could just ask them what kind of feedback would be most helpful.

Alternatively, ask yourself a set of narrower questions to get to some more detailed feedback. Here are a few examples:

What do I appreciate about the idea or proposal put forward? What concerns do I have about the implementation that don’t seem to have been addressed? What’s one thing I would improve about what’s in front of me?

Now, to be clear, giving feedback isn’t about sandwiching negative feedback in layers of good feedback. It’s about being candid and honest. Being German, I find it useful to ground myself and focus on some of the good things first, before I dve in and consider the things I think should be refined or have consequences not considered.

There’s an upgraded path from the first stage of feedback. We’re getting slightly more concrete, but just a smidge.

Stage 2: Do You Have Any Feedback?

As a former manager, I’ve been dreading getting this question from my reports: “Do you have any feedback for me?”. Because of course I was too busy thinking about their personal growth and how they went about their work, helping them do a better job and become better leaders.

I only really learned over time that when this question comes from a report, it’s already too late. I hadn’t done my job as their manager.

But here’s the thing: this question is still very generic. It’s only a slight improvement over “Feedback welcome.” It puts anyone on the spot, forcing them to think and come up with anything that could be useful. The most likely answer is “No, I don’t have any feedback for you.”

Inarguably, I should’ve been prepared for this as a manager. I should’ve had some feedback ready, or even better, I should have given them the feedback as early as possible after it came up rather than wait for the other person to ask me whether I had any.

Feedback should be given in a timely fashion, mentioning a concrete situation and the outcome it led to.

Overall, this second stage is only a small improvement. It’s posed as a question, but as one that creates space for a simple yes or no answer. Unless someone truly comes prepared, their answer is likely going to be no. When I was caught off guard by this question, I had to fumble my way out of the conversation and say something unhelpful like “Not right now, but you’re doing great!” I know, it’s pretty embarrassing.

You can move out of this stage in the same way you can move past the first stage: by asking yourself or the person asking for the feedback pointed questions on specific aspects of the work. For the person seeking feedback, we’ll move to the next stage to build up more of that muscle.

Stage 3: What am I doing well?

Things are getting more specific! This is the very question I asked my team at the beginning of this post. A different question is to ask others, “What’s one thing I can improve?”

This approach can be a good starting point if you’re just beginning to build your feedback muscle. It’s certainly an improvement over the first two stages and might actually yield something useful.

But the results might be all over the place. They may focus on something minute, something that is more important to the other person, pointing to a larger problem rather than one that concerns you individually. They may offer generic feedback without a direct connection to your everyday work, like telling me they like the innate German-ness I bring into my work. Or someone might tell you you’re a good leader but that doesn’t tell you anything about how that manifests. Someone might tell you to improve your communication to the team without mentioning a specific situation or without providing a concrete suggestion. None of that will help you understand what you’re already doing well and need to do more of, or where you should adjust your behavior or learn new skills.

At this point, we’ve learned that generic questions aren’t helpful, both for the receiver and the person providing the feedback. But clearly, we’re moving in the right direction. The last stage is where things get interesting, where things are getting concrete.

Stage 4: What kind of information or context are you not getting from me that would help you do your job better?

When I first started doing one-on-ones with my team, the process was entirely new to me. I’d freshly moved into a management role and wasn’t used to the idea of talking to the people on my team every week. It sounds silly looking back, but that’s how it was for me. I had no management experience back then, learning and applying things from what I’d been reading or what I got out of my coaching. And I had very few examples from past jobs where managers did the work and showed that they cared for me beyond sitting down once a year for a performance review. Any feedback I received at this point was worthless. Or rather, it wasn’t, because my personal goals were tied to a salary bonus.

During those first one-on-one meetings, I asked folks questions like “What’s something that we’re not doing that we should be doing?” or “What can we improve about our marketing?” I pulled those questions from a list so I had some place to get started. It felt awkward to me. Not because I didn’t think they were good questions to ask, but because asking them questions like that felt unnatural to me. Which is really only because we’d somehow winged it as a company until then, making things up as we went along, sharing ideas left and right, going after whatever seemed good in the moment.

What I soon learned is that I received some valuable insights from these conversations. It was clear that people took the time to think about these topics and bring some useful and actionable things to the table. I didn’t just pick the questions at random. I focused on a few specific areas where I knew we weren’t doing enough, where I had blind spots.

And that right there is the key to getting good feedback:

You need to understand what’s most important to you, where you have blind spots, where your understanding might not be complete.

This is true for feedback to help you on your personal and professional progression, and for feedback on documents, processes, and any other things that you’re sharing with people around you.

  1. Be clear on what areas are most important to you, or where the person you’re approaching could be the most helpful.
  2. Tailor a set of specific questions that focus on the areas and the specific input the other person could provide you with.
  3. If the answers are either too broad or too specific and focused on minute details, go back to step 2 and rephrase your questions.

Good feedback will help you fill in the blanks on blind spots you know you have. It will help you find blind spots you didn’t know you had. It will help you consider perspectives that you hadn’t thought about before. It will help you sharpen wording. It will help you understand what you're already doing well, and what you need to do more of (hint: it’s what you’re doing well!). And most importantly: it will help you build up a muscle for being the go-to person for feedback, whether to provide it or to ask for it.

Manager Power-Up: The Feedback Log

Keeping track of what feedback you’ve given and when, or collecting feedback you have yet to give, can be a challenge. Managers and leaders are pulled and pushed all over the place, and it’s too easy to lose sight of a situation where feedback was warranted. Other times we hope that we don’t have to give what could be perceived as negative feedback, hoping the situation will sort itself out, us not wanting to face up to reality that it’s our job. And so we put it off until it’s gone from memory.

There’s a simple technique you can adopt to ensure you always remember giving feedback and feedback given: Keep a feedback log. It’s a simple text file or spreadsheet where you keep track of who should receive the feedback, when the situation you’re referring to occurred, what the situation was, and its impact. You can add what you’d like to see the person adjust. The last field to add is when you’ve given the feedback.

Before every one-on-one you can go back to this file and check whether there’s any feedback you need to give the other person. You can also check if there’s any feedback worthy of a follow-up to revisit how the other person handled it.

As the person receiving feedback, do make sure you keep a log file of feedback you’ve received too. This doesn’t just have to be the reinforcing kind of feedback. Even documenting the suggestions for what you can improve is helpful. You can come back to them any time to discuss with the person who's given the feedback whether they’ve seen improvements.

Feedback is a muscle that you need to build over time and with practice. Where you are in the four stages doesn’t mean it’s either good or bad. Maybe you’ve mastered the skill of giving feedback to the point where you can dive into any document and give meaningful and actionable feedback to the author without them having asked concrete questions. Working your way up to stage four has the benefit that, over time, the skills you learn by asking and responding to concrete feedback, will help you provide feedback to authors in any of the other stages. You’ll turn into a feedback magnet.

My thanks to Camille Fournier and Jenny Herald for teaching me the ways of feedback. I saw a talk Camille gave on gathering personal feedback from peers at a conference a couple of years ago and it’s shaped me ever since. Jenny gave me a lot of inspiration on what aspects of their work leaders can get feedback on and how.