Chances are, unless you ask, most people won’t tell. People are holding back their best thinking on how you can improve.
This is partly because we know our own context, and therefore give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
“Sure, I slacked off a bit on that project, but, I’m only human for Pete’s sake. It’s back to school time, my husband’s out-of-town, it’s just a lot.”
We know we are human and that we’re doing the best we can, so we give ourselves some extra credit. We don’t expect others to know or care, but we know in our hearts we deserve a break.
I’ve witnessed this first hand with my MBA students. When I asked them to self-assess where they feel they ranked in terms of class participation, 100% rated themselves in the top 30%. That’s some crazy math– particularly for accountants.
When I asked the students to rate themselves and their teammates on their contribution to their team project, a similar pattern emerged. The students whom the teams identified as someone “they would not want to work with again,” didn’t view themselves that way at all. Instead they rated everyone on the team as having contributed equally. The most fascinating part was that although the team’s evaluations of their peers were often quite harsh, they were quite deliberate in ensuring their team didn’t hear the feedback from them. The harshest criticism came in sealed envelopes.
Of course in these circumstances, I asked the obvious question. “Did you tell her how you feel about her contribution?” Number one answer. “No. She didn’t ask.” And so the cycle continues into the next semester, and will likely follow them into the workplace.
These students are not unique. Don’t ask, don’t tell is alive and well when it comes to peer feedback.
If you want to know how you’re really doing, you need to ask.
Sure formal 360 tools are a GREAT way to get structured, anonymous feedback. I’ve learned a great deal from them over the years, and helped leaders at all levels do the same. But the truth is, what makes these tools valuable is always the conversation that follows. If a formal 360 is not available or not practical in your organization, you can achieve similar results through your own listening tour.
“Rachel” came to me frustrated by the feedback she’d been getting from her boss. She felt completely misunderstood. When I asked her what others in the organization thought, she admitted she hadn’t asked.
We identified 3 simple questions she would ask her boss, her peers, and her direct reports. She went off an a 2 week listening tour. When we met again to discuss the themes, she had learned a great deal. Most importantly she had made the strategic shift from, “my boss is a jerk,” to maybe there are some things I could be doing differently. She made the changes, and life got better– for everyone.
The Listening Tour Approach
1. Get Your Head Right
Don’t do this unless you’re ready to listen with an open-mind
Absolutely don’t do this to prove someone wrong– people will smell that coming from a mile away
2. Identify Areas of Interest
- Focus on a few key areas
- Keep it short, simple, and exploratory
3. Craft a Few Open-Ended Questions
- What could I do to be more effective in our meetings?
- How could I have a more strategic impact on our results?
- What about my communication style gets in the way?
- What do you think are my biggest strengths?
- If you could identify one area for me to work on this year, what would that be?
4. Identify People to Ask for Feedback
- Include people up down and sideways.
- Don’t stack the deck with all friendlies or known detractors– work to get a balanced perspective.
- Approach them one on one, and explain why you’re doing this
- Explain that you’re really looking for candid feedback and that you’ll be happy to circle back with themes and key actions.
- Thank them
5. Identify themes and key actions
- Look for cross-cutting feedback
- A coach or mentor can be very helpful in this regard
- Circle back with stakeholders
Or Start with a “Survey”
I’m a big proponent to the listening tour approach. Nothing beats eye-ball to eye-ball conversation. But if you think you won’t get the truth, or you truly feel uncomfortable, you can start by using a free survey tool like Survey Monkey to quickly distribute the survey and ask for themes. I would go with a few open-ended questions rather than ratings. Ratings without comments will just leave you scratching your head at best, or ticking you off at worst.
Process matters less than substance. Ask and you shall receive. If you want feedback, start with a simple question. How can I add more value?