This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review
By Dr. Amantha Imber
November 16, 2020
Many years ago, I applied for a role I had considered my dream job. I made it to the last round of the interview process where I had to give a presentation at the company. When I was done, I asked them for feedback. “How did it go?” I said and received some damning and utterly unactionable comments. I left the room with a deflated sense of self. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
Throughout my career, I was made to believe that asking for feedback is critical because that’s how we learn and grow. But according to research, feedback has little impact on our performance. Over one-third of the time, it actually negatively impacts performance.
For women in particular, feedback can be unhelpful. One study conducted by professors Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard at Standard University analyzed over 200 performance reviews across three high-tech companies and a professional services firm. It found that, compared to men, women received feedback that was less likely to be tied to business outcomes and was also more vague and challenging to implement.
Why is feedback so ineffective? The main reason is because — true to its name — it is backward-looking. When someone gives you feedback, they’re anchoring themselves in the bygones and reflecting on your past behavior (the annual performance appraisal, the sales quarter that just passed, or the presentation you wrapped up). This makes it harder for you to focus on the future, because all you’ll hear about is how you screwed up or what didn’t go right, not how you should perform going forward. For this reason, feedback tends to be less actionable.
Research from Harvard Business School shows how this plays out. In one study, 200 people were asked to provide input on a job application for a tutoring position. Participants had to either provide feedback or advice on the letter. Those who were asked to give feedback tended to give vague comments along with general praise, such as, “the applicant seems to meet most of the requirements.” In contrast, those who were asked to provide advice were more critical and actionable in their comments. For example, one reviewer suggested that the applicant include details about their tutoring style and why they adopted it, in addition to including their ultimate end goal for the education of a 7-year-old. Specifically, advice-givers suggested 34% more ways to improve the application and 56% more ways to improve in general.
The researchers posited that advice-giving leads one to think about future actions that the person in need of guidance could take. As such, when asked to give advice, people are more likely to think critically and specifically about strategies the person could do to improve.
Of course, when you’re in the early stages of your career, it’s good to know where you went wrong or what’s lacking in your performance. But it’s more important is knowing how to make it better and improve. So focus on asking for advice instead of asking for feedback. And to get the best advice possible, use these four tips.
Be specific in the type of advice you are seeking.
When asking for advice, specifying the category of help you want will make it more useful. For example, are you looking for a sounding board for an idea? Methods to improve your communication skills? Or alternative solutions to a problem you’re facing?
Ask yourself, “What will really help me get better at [problem]?” For example, instead of asking, “What do you think of my revenue numbers from last quarter?” you could say, “So far, I’ve tried [a] and [b] but I haven’t been able to meet my goal. How would you have gone about doing this?”
Show them the way.
If you ask people to think about what could help you in the future, the advice you will receive will be more specific and actionable. For example, you could make the ask specific, such as, “What could I change about my presentation skills to deliver a more powerful presentation next time?” or “Could you give me a few tips to make my slides more appealing?” Alternatively, you could try asking more broadly-framed (yet, still future-oriented) questions. Instead of saying, ““How did you think it went today?” you could ask, “What could I do better next time?” and receive useful advice that can help you think in new ways and move forward instead of rehashing the past.
Give a little nudge.
If someone gives you vague feedback such as “You did great” or “You could do better,” don’t just stop the conversation there. Prod further and extract the advice you need. You could say, “What specifically did I do well?” or “What is one thing I can do better next time?” Probing will ensure the conversation is useful and one that actually helps you improve in the future.
Ask the right person.
When you’re looking for solid feedback, you may be tempted to seek multiple points of view (the more the better, right?). But research has found that receiving too many pieces of different advice often makes us more likely to ignore it. The opinions you receive could be conflicting and could leave you confused. And if your advice-giver realizes that you’re reaching out to many people, they may also be hesitant to give you real, actionable feedback because they aren’t sure if you’ll take it to heart over someone else’s words of wisdom.
Think hard about the problem or topic you are seeking feedback on and consider who is best placed to give you advice on it. Most people tend to seek guidance from people they’re close to or feel comfortable with. But those people may not have the best knowledge about the subject. If you’re looking for feedback on your resume, you should probably reach out to your career counselor, a certified resume writer, or someone in a recruiting role instead of a family member or friend. And don’t say, “How does my resume look?” Instead, try, “Do you think my resume accurately captures my skills and experience?”
Good advice can be transformative, especially when you’re just starting out or have little experience. So the next time you’re in need of advice, follow these suggestions to get feedback that actually works.