We are all want to improve. Intentionally or otherwise, we do this by experimentation. We take new actions or try different methods to see if our outcomes improve. One of the key ways we measure that improvement is by external feedback. We ask others to assess our judgements, and look for differing viewpoints and experiences.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried new methods in a couple of key areas I work in. As such, honest feedback is essential for me at the moment to move forward. My current issue is that the people I’ve been working with haven’t volunteered any feedback. It doesn’t take too long to get to the root cause of that one, which is that I haven’t requested it.
It’s not immediately clear to me why this isn’t the case. I’ve requested feedback before. I know what questions to ask to prompt constructive contribution. I know how to separate judgement on my work from judgement on me as a person. I’ve had to set aside time for reflection to examine what is inhibiting me here and now.
My initial reflection is that the action of asking for feedback makes you vulnerable. You are voluntarily removing some safety from your environment, but with no predictable outcome. It’s a blind bet, and the loss can be as significant as the gain. Personal comfort with vulnerability is not a steady state, and environmental factors have a big part to play. Making changes can lower your confidence in getting to a positive outcome. Your investment in a piece of work inevitably makes it feel riskier to expose it to a potential negative judgement. Even assuming we’re personally comfortable, we don’t know what might be influencing the person we are asking for feedback from. This is the challenge at the heart of using feedback constructively - it is most valuable at the time it is most difficult to hear.
How then do we address this challenge? We often talk about vulnerability being a key aspect of leadership, but the ability to demonstrate vulnerability needs to be an ability we all have, regardless of our role or responsibility. In not asking for this feedback, I have demonstrated that I do not feel safe enough to hear it. It’s not solely my responsibility to create that safety, but I need to identify positive steps to enable it.
There’s a painful truth to acknowledge here. I’ve never worked in an organisation that got feedback right. I’m now of the opinion that it’s not possible for an organisation to get it “right”. There are so many changing variables with feedback that it’s not possible to create and implement a framework or culture that guarantees success. Rather than looking at it from the top down, we need to nurture relationships where we can accept honest assessments, and build new ones when we have capacity. Feedback starts at home.