How to Ask For Feedback: 16 Ways to Get the Input You Need

“How do I ask for feedback from the boss?”

A reader posed a great question recently in the feedback section of one of my leadership courses.

“I and others like me in our organization rarely hear a few encouraging words or feedback of any type.  How does one approach one’s supervisor about something like this?”

We’ve talked about the importance of giving constructive feedback,  and how to use the Sandwich Method to soften the blow.  But to improve ourselves, we need to be on the receiving end, too. If your boss never takes the time to give you constructive feedback, how do you get better at your job?

As Leadership Development and CEO coach Lolly Daskal says, the best bosses will make an investment of time and effort to help you grow and develop.  But when they don’t, you need to take your professional development into your own hands – you have to ask for feedback.

Today we’ll talk about 16 things you can do to help you ask for feedback, and start getting the input you need.

How to Ask for Feedback

Stephen Covey himself hits the nail on the head in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. – Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

Reluctance to Share

To progress, we need honest, candid feedback from the boss.  But bosses sometimes don’t provide it.  Why?

Not a priority.  The boss has a million things on her mind.  Feedback is often the first thing to get dropped off the “to-do” list when time runs short.  They may think they’ll get to it later, but later often never comes.

Takes too much effort.  Preparing for and wading through a deep touchy-feely discussion on performance with an employee can seem like more effort than it is worth.

Fear of confrontation.  Some managers just don’t want to start that conversation because they fear where it may lead.  If they think you will become defensive or angry, all the more likely they will put it off.

Doesn’t know that you want it.  It could also be that they don’t realize it is something you are looking for.

But getting honest, actionable feedback is too important to let it go; if you aren’t getting it, you need to ask for it.  How?  Here’s the approach: make it easy for them.

Make it easy for your boss to give you the feedback you need. Click To Tweet

Choose the Topic

Narrow the scope.  If it looks like you are expecting a comprehensive overview of all aspects of your professional performance, that can appear like a daunting effort for the boss.  Much easier if you focus in on just one area or project, one chunk, at a time.

Prioritize.  You may have lots of questions on your mind, but it helps to pick the most important ones to address first. Think about those things that can have long-lasting career impacts.

Alison Green writing for QuickBase suggests thinking about what you are building towards and focusing on the skills that will help you get there.

If you want to be a department lead someday, prioritize questions about the leadership skills you will need to get there.

Pick the Setting

Do it off-line.  Avoid asking for personal feedback when there could be a group of by-standers, such as in the middle of a meeting.  The boss may not be as honest as you want out of respect for your feelings, or you may be setting yourself up for some embarrassment if he has some critical thoughts to share.

Avoiding an audience will help make the conversation more beneficial for both of you.

Keep it informal.  Depending on where you work, it can be hard to get on the boss’s calendar.  Instead, seek out casual opportunities to get the boss’s attention to talk with you.  Catch them at the coffee urn or ask if you can walk out with them after a meeting.

Who knows, they might invite you into the office for a more detailed discussion.

Ask for Feedback

Don’t wait.  It you are looking for feedback on how you did on a specific task or project, it is better to ask while it is still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Memories fade quickly and you lose the opportunity for that detailed input you are looking for.  Ask while it is easy for everyone to remember what happened.

Embed a compliment.  Just the fact that you are asking for feedback is a way of showing deference to their knowledge, experience, or position.  But it doesn’t hurt to introduce the question with a compliment – it sets a positive mood and demonstrates that you are receptive to what they have to say.

“Hey, Boss, thanks for the opportunity to make the spreadsheet for project X; I’m learning a lot, but I’m wondering what you think I should work on to make these better next time around?”

Be specific.  If you just ask a general question, you’ll probably get a general answer.

“How did I do, boss?’ 

“Fine, good job.”

That conversation may make you feel a little better, but you have nothing solid to go on that will help you do better next time.

Elizabeth Narins suggests identifying a specific area – like communications skills or a completed task and asking, “What am I doing well?” or “What could have I done better?”

Ask “How” and “What” questions.  The way you ask for feedback is important.  Carolyn O’Hara writing for Harvard Business Review suggests that if you begin your questions with “How” and “What” you are more likely to get useful feedback.

“How do you think I could improve my pitch to the customer?”

“What part of my presenting skills should I work on to make them more effective?”

Pin them down.  Sometimes the first few responses you get can still be vague.  You might hear “You should be more assertive” or “you should work on your communication skills.”  OK, we’re getting somewhere now, but it is still not quite enough.  Be ready with a follow-up, maybe something like these:

“How can I be more assertive?”

“What would be an example of better ways to communicate?”

“When you say ‘be better prepared’ what specifically are you looking for so I can be ready next time?”

Don’t get defensive.  Remember, you asked for this, and you need it delivered straight.  If the news is not good, you want to hear it now while you can do something to improve, not at your annual review.

If your first response is to start to argue back you risk shutting down this growth opportunity and making it even harder to get feedback in the future.

Receiving constructive feedback? Don't get defensive; seek the underlying truth. Click To Tweet

Listen, ask specific questions, take notes.  Do your best to understand things from their perspective.

Close with a Thank You.  Sure, this is something the boss should be doing as part of their job.  But it never hurts to thank them for taking the time to share their thoughts with you.

Received some constructive feedback? Consider it a gift and express your thanks. Click To Tweet

Some Other Options

Here are a few others ways you can go about getting some useful feedback.

Build it into the plan.  If you can influence a project’s timeline, build in a feedback session with the boss after key events.

Make an appointment.   Sometimes it may be hard to get the boss’ attention with everything else that is going on.  One way to get some time with them is to schedule a brief update to them on your project.  Make your update short, informative, and importantly: useful to them.

As part of the conversation, be ready to ask a couple specific questions to task that will result in the feedback you need.

“Before we finish up here, I just wanted to ask, what more you think I could be doing to improve communication on this project?”

Make it helpful.  Some places have annual reviews, quarterly counseling sessions, or other routine meetings.  Instead of waiting for the boss to schedule these (if they ever do), take the initiative and do it yourself.  Get on their calendar, pick the topic, and be ready with some good questions when the time comes.

Seek other sources.  As Jessica Mattern writing for Fast Company points out, the boss isn’t the only person who can provide useful feedback to you.  Peers, employees, and clients can each offer valuable input on how you are doing.

The people in the meeting who heard your presentation or are reading your spreadsheet can offer useful input, too.  Ask them for their specific thoughts about how you can improve.

Give to get.  A great tip on getting insights from your peers is that it’s easier to get some if you are giving some.  Executive Coach Ed Batista suggests starting with the positive and keeping it there.  Pick something you thought a coworker did well, and point it out.

“Hey, Stacy, I just wanted to tell you that I thought the way you engaged the audience with questions in your presentation was really powerful.  Nicely done.”

Asking for Feedback – The Takeaway

There are lots of ways to get useful feedback from the boss.  You can help the information flow by making it easy for them – keep it simple, focused, and informal, and be ready to follow up with specific questions for best effect.

Of course, getting the feedback is only the first part of the equation.  If you don’t act on what you learn, you are wasting everyone’s time and missing an opportunity to improve.

Write down what you hear.  If it makes sense, come up with a plan of action that will help you get better, whether it’s taking a course, shadowing a co-worker, reading a book, rehearsing skills, whatever.

Then, next time you see the boss, thank them for the feedback and tell them about the progress you are making at getting better.  You’ll both be glad you did.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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