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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Steps for Asking for (and Getting) Truly Honest Feedback

It’s no secret: Feedback will make you better—personally, and definitely professionally.

But, it’s also a tricky thing.

It’s only natural to elicit feedback during a review process or after a meaningful milestone or achievement (or, ahem, lack of). But what about when there’s nothing going on to write home about? How can you figure out what your colleagues think of you—good and bad—and use it to your advantage all year long?

Here’s some good news: With just a little creative positioning and foresight, honest, regular, insight on your performance will come with ease. And the best part is, you’ll never even have to ask “how am I doing?”

Step 1: Play the Long Game

The first thing you need to know about soliciting genuine feedback is that it’s not a quick fix. In fact, building up the trust and comfort among your colleagues that enables them to share their honest thoughts with ease takes time. If you try to coax feedback out of your colleagues before they’re ready, you probably won’t get very far.

I witnessed this firsthand when someone new joined my team several years ago. I worked in a small, tight-knit group, and all of us had been working together for five years (or more). As a result, we were candid and frequent with our feedback with one another.

Our new addition observed this and decided to hit each of us up for a “temperature check” after her first week on the job. Seems innocent enough, right? Not so fast. Most of us were still trying to remember her name.

Instead of coming across as being proactive and committed to doing a great job—which I’m sure was her intention—she came across as overbearing and completely incapable of reading a situation. So, instead of us sharing our honest feedback, we all pulled away from her instead. The exact opposite of what she was hoping to achieve.

I get it. We all like to know how we’re doing—and we should. But, remember that being asked to give feedback to a stranger isn’t exactly comfortable for anyone involved—so the first and most important part of the process is developing a trusting relationship with your colleagues.

Step 2: Listen Up

So, how do you actually build that trust? Aside from the obvious—show up to work on time, don’t get blasted at the post-work happy hour, steer clear of office gossip—there’s a key approach to building up your reputation as a trusted colleague: listening. After all, before anyone will feel comfortable sharing anything with you, they’ll need to know you know how to listen.

Fortunately, this step is something you can practice every day. I tried this out with an old boss who was particularly hard to read and notorious for not giving feedback freely. I started by giving him my full attention every time he spoke to me about anything. Yes, anything—the story of that time the dog ate his daughter’s doll, his re-telling of an amazing golf game the previous weekend, a convoluted explanation of why the stock market was in the tank that day. Whether I was interested or not, I maintained eye contact, engaged in active listening, and made sure he knew I valued his time. It took about a year, but he finally began to share feedback with me on a regular basis.

Prove to your colleagues you’re a genuine listener, and you’ll begin building a strong foundation of trust that will enable honest feedback in the office.

Step 3: Give and You Shall Receive

Sometimes, you have to give a little to get a little, and this is definitely true with feedback. Part of what makes others trust you enough to be honest is knowing you’ll do the same for them.

Several years ago, I had started a new job in a slightly different capacity, and I really wanted to ace the learning curve—which meant I needed every bit of feedback I could get. The problem was, I was the new guy, and no one had had enough time to really gauge my reaction to feedback (not to mention, no one wants to scare the new hire with a lot of criticism—even if it’s constructive). So, when I wasn’t getting the feedback I was hoping for, I started to give it to my colleagues, instead.

I started with positive feedback (which, obviously, is much easier), then slowly worked in more constructive feedback where appropriate. I was also careful to space it out, so I never overloaded anyone with too much information—no one likes a brown-noser. But, I did keep track of things my colleagues did that I found truly helpful or warranted a high five. It didn’t take long before the rest of the team caught on and began giving me feedback as well.

Sometimes, people just need a little taste before they get an appetite. Once they receive helpful feedback, they’re much more likely to give it out when they feel it’s appropriate.

Step 4: Acknowledge and Respond

One of the most important steps in the feedback process is responding appropriately. Not all suggestions you receive will be helpful—or even relevant—but if you stand any chance of continuing an honest feedback loop with your colleagues, you’ll have to make sure they feel like you took their words to heart.

This worked particularly well with one of my managers several years ago. While he had done everything right to assure we had the necessary trust to be honest, the fact that he was my boss always gave me pause before sharing my thoughts with him—especially if I had constructive criticism. But, it was what he did afterward that always convinced me to keep sharing. Every time I gave him feedback, he always acknowledged my comments and promised to consider them. And every single time, he came back to me later and either walked me through how he planned to put my suggestions into action or shared why he didn’t think that was the best solution, but that he thought my ideas were valid and appreciated my honesty.

Your colleagues need to know you’ll not only listen to their feedback with an open mind, but that you’ll take that advice to heart, as well. I guarantee you won’t always get the best advice, but show your colleagues you value their opinion and will always do your best to use their feedback to improve, and you’ll keep the lines of communication open.

Soliciting feedback from your colleagues may seem like a scary endeavor, but with enough time, patience, and planning, you’ll set yourself—and your colleagues—up for success with open, honest, real-time, feedback.

Photo of comment card courtesy of Shutterstock.