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Are you making these three common mistakes when you’re looking for feedback?

A quick guide to getting more helpful insight from others.

Are you making these three common mistakes when you’re looking for feedback?
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]

In any job, and indeed any area of performance, feedback is key to getting better. And there’s no substitute for the opinion of well-intended people who have both expertise in your field and knowledge of your performance. Hearing their views on how you are doing is essential for eliminating mistakes, putting in place more effective behaviors and habits, and learning new skills.

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Yet feedback is tremendously underutilized in organizations, with surveys indicating that 65% of employees feel they don’t get enough. This stands in contrast to professional athletes, for example, who can rely on regular evaluations and tips from dedicated coaches. Lack of feedback doesn’t just hurt professional development, but it also affects performance, engagement, and well-being. As global HR industry analyst Josh Bersin noted, the absence of feedback makes people “nervous, suspicious, and less productive,” while scientific research shows that well-designed feedback produces significant boosts in employee morale and performance.

Although organizations need to create a feedback-rich culture, it’s also the employees’ responsibility to get what they need to improve their performance. These are the three most common mistakes they make when they ask for feedback from others.

Fishing for compliments

Even when employees don’t realize it, their approaches to feedback seeking tend to condition others to provide good rather than bad feedback. “Was this okay?” they’ll ask, or “Did you like my presentation?” “Are you happy with my report?” or “Shall I apply for a promotion?” These questions are designed to elicit an agreeable, rather than an honest, answer. It only gets worse when people approach sources they know will be positive, much like when a friend asks another friend if s/he is fat or if s/he looks good in that outfit.


Related: How to train yourself to take feedback well


To overcome this problem, you should always prioritize seeking feedback from people who are less interested in being nice to you. That can be either because they are not your friend or colleague, or because they have a disagreeable personality. You should also phrase your questions so they’ll elicit criticism, such as: “What could I have done better?” “Which mistakes did I make?” “What are the things you disliked about my presentation?” or “What are the main areas where I could improve?”

While we all enjoy playing to our strengths, you can only get better by addressing your weaknesses, and feedback is key to identifying those weaknesses. It should also be noted that scientific research suggests that praise and positive feedback can have the opposite effect on your performance.

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Focusing on the unchangeable

Too often, when people seek feedback they fixate on issues that are hard to change, such as past events or their own personality. Clearly, you can only fix things going forward, so dwelling on the past won’t get you far. While guilt and regret can often be channeled into positive behaviors, you are better off focusing on the present, which is what you can control.


Related: The art and science of giving and receiving criticism at work


You’ll also be much more successful in developing your potential if you focus on changing behaviors rather than your personality. This means substituting feedback relating to your general dispositions, such as asking people whether you are creative, emotionally intelligent, or adaptable. Or for more granular feedback on your actions like asking people whether you talk too much or too little during a meeting, whether you are sufficiently responsive with your e-mails, or whether you are coming up with enough ideas or suggestions with regards to a specific project. Others will have a mental model of your personality, and you will benefit enormously from knowing what it is. However, the stuff you can actually change–in a way that improves your performance–is much more specific.

Ignoring unpleasant facts

Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when seeking feedback is to ignore information that makes them look bad. This is unfortunate, because accurate, well-intended, negative feedback is both infrequently delivered, and the most valuable type of feedback to improve your performance.

Although it is inherently human to ignore criticism, people with higher self-confidence are particularly prone to it–and nobody excels at it more than narcissists. So, when someone tells you something about yourself that you don’t like, remember that they may have given you a rather precious gift, and that their voice may be representing the opinion of many others who are not courageous enough to criticize you.

As Adam Grant noted: “Productive givers focus on acting in the long-term best interests of others, even if it’s not pleasant. They have the courage to give the critical feedback we prefer not to hear, but truly need to hear.” If there is one thing that makes humility a universal career weapon, it is the ability to take on criticism, no matter how unpleasant it might be.

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