Five keys to learning what others really think about you


I met with a client recently who wanted to discuss how to gather feedback on their performance.  This seems like a simple topic but as we explored it together it became clear there is a lot more to it.  Kudos to my client for wanting to gather this feedback.   The only time we typically get feedback is from the dreaded annual performance reviews.  Gathered by others, the results are often not very helpful and sometimes useless.

Asking for feedback can be awkward

This approach has evolved from the belief that asking for feedback about ourselves is awkward.  They will not feel comfortable being candid and instead will resort to the usual platitudes.  I observe feedback in annual performance reviews like ‘you are doing fine’ accompanied by some suggestions to improve technical skills. I rarely read any reviews with behavioral feedback.  I’m not sure if that is because we don’t want to step into dangerous waters or we are not good at observing behaviors.  I sense we prefer to avoid conflict and end up staying in the safe zone.

High quality feedback is very valuable

This is very unfortunate.  Receiving high quality actionable feedback is one of the most powerful development tools we have available to us.  When I work with clients, I conduct interviews with peers, direct reports and stakeholders to gather feedback on how others see my client.  There is almost always a gap between how they see themselves and the feedback I give them.  With that information they can choose to close the gap.  That is much more valuable than walking around believing our perception equals reality.

I talked with my client about how best to  gather high quality actionable feedback.  Here are five things that will help anyone improve the quality of feedback received.

  1. Set the context for the conversation.  Describe why you are asking for feedback and how you will use it.  You might be looking for broad feedback or you might have a specific topic you would like to cover.  For example, you sense some people are uncomfortable talking with you.
  2. Ask open questions.  This is difficult when we already have a perspective about something, especially ourselves.  A variation of a question I use when gathering feedback for clients is “how would you describe my management style”.  Notice the focus is on the management style, not the person.
  3. Don’t ask for judgments.  It is easy to start with questions like “how am I doing”, or “how well I am supporting you”.  When we ask for judgments we trigger the fear of offending the other person.  This leads to the responses I mentioned above, “you are doing fine”.
  4. Ask for descriptions.  In contrast to asking for judgments, it is much easier and to ask the other person to describe you.   You are asking for a factual response, what they observe about you and this is much less risky to answer.  For example, you could ask them for their observations of you in X meeting or what do you notice when I ask you for something.   The more specific you can be the better.
  5. Ask in advance for feedback.  This is the most effective way to gather reliable actionable feedback.  Ask someone you trust to take note in future situations about how you show up.  What do they notice?  By asking them ahead of time, they will be much more attuned to observe and provide you with more accurate feedback.

Some of the most successful people I know regularly gather feedback about themselves.  By making it a routine, they become more comfortable asking and the quality of feedback increases.  It can also evolve into a valuable two-way feedback discussion.  If you don’t do this today, I recommend you start slowly with trusted peers and build out from there.  I have created a feedback gathering cheat sheet with a set of powerful open questions to get you started.