Quick quiz: How many professionals go out of their way to get feedback? I don’t have a scientific answer to this question, but here’s my very strong experience-based hunch: very, very few! Part of my standard coaching approach includes setting up consistent feedback mechanisms between my clients and their colleagues in the workplace. But this is almost invariably a Herculean task.
Take this example. I was recently coaching a professional whose job requires him to regularly create and deliver talks for a variety of audiences. Let’s call him Gary (and yes, I always protect the identities of the guilty in these posts, unless the guilty party is me!) There have been whispers in his organization that Gary’s speaking style — uh — leaves a little to be desired. Colleagues used words like academic, pedantic, and boring when I asked them about Gary’s delivery style. That may be tolerated in a university setting (though I personally think that’s incredibly sad), it just doesn’t fly when people have the option of getting up and walking out of a presentation.
So I made an innocent suggestion. (OK, if I’m totally honest, it wasn’t completely innocent. I was trying to get a reaction after all and I was pretty sure I knew the answer to my question.) “Why not get some feedback on your talk from a few people in the crowd?”
The phone line went quiet for a moment. Then I heard Gary say hesitantly, “Well, how would that work?” He obviously felt very uncomfortable with the idea.
He’s not alone. I have heard similar reactions from professional services firm partners and CEOs, sales executives, IT leaders, and non-profit heads. What’s more, take a look around at many firms, even in client-focused specialties like consulting, law, or accounting. How many firms solicit real feedback from clients as a matter of normal practice? I’m not talking about occasional “let’s get closer to the customer” feedback initiatives that come and go in many firms. I’m talking about a matter-of-fact, day in and day out discipline of gathering and acting on feedback from those we say we serve.
Ask most firms why that is and they give a host of reasons. But usually at the core, they don’t want to solicit feedback because they are afraid of the answer. Some even argue, “Why ask a perfectly well-paying client what they think? It may make them suddenly realize that they’re not that satisfied, opening the door for our competitors.” Come on! Are we really saying that we’re content delivering work to clients that’s good enough that they’ll pay for it as long as they’re asleep?!? We must do better.
But as anxious as firms are, individuals have even more reason to be concerned. No one likes hearing bad news and feedback can be seen as bad news. What if my client is underwhelmed by my services? What if my colleague thinks I’m difficult to work with? What if the audience thinks I’m boring?
Which leads us back to Gary, the public speaking-challenged professional. Eventually, he asked the question that every client asks when I suggest feedback. “Well, who would I ask to do that for me?”
Gary’s too polite to say what he was really thinking. Here’s what I think was running through his head: “Who can I count on to be on my side? I need someone who sees the world like I do so that they don’t just tell me I’m wrong. I don’t want to feel worse after this whole thing than I already do. And who gets me and my discipline to even have a shot at giving me useful feedback?”
Those are legitimate questions. Here’s one way to answer them. Pick someone who actually sees you in action, not someone who only hears about you through the grapevine. In addition, make it someone who will actually give you a straight shot about your skills. If they’re totally, insanely on your side, they’ll just blow sunshine at you. (I generally disqualify family members for this reason!) If they have an axe to grind with you, they’ll relish the chance to take pot-shots at you. You’re looking for someone who will give you straightforward, balanced input – the good, the bad, and everything in between. Last – and definitely not least – you want someone who you believe has your best interest in mind. That will help you weather the emotional dips when they say something tough to you.
But don’t let the anxiety push you back from helping those you coach get feedback. Get it, sift through it to find the truth, and help them to act on it. It’s a powerful motivator for change.