March 26, 2014 3:11 pm

Feedback can be catalyst to change

Marielena Sabatier

Marielena Sabatier: ‘be curious’

It can be the most excruciating date on the executive calendar, second only to the company bonding day or your boss’s inaugural band gig. You might have hit all your targets, exceeded all expectations and excelled yourself in the boardroom, but now it is time for some feedback. There is lots of training on how to give feedback, but do you know how to take it?

If you have gone for – and lost out on – the promotion of your dreams, the last thing you might want to do is find out why you failed. But it makes sense to discover what you could have done better. That much is obvious, but what do you do with the information you are given and how should you react?

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“No matter how senior a person is, it is important for them to ask for feedback post-annual review because everyone has blind spots,” says Marielena Sabatier, a business and career coach. “Asking for feedback helps improve self-awareness and gives people vital knowledge and understanding of how they need to improve performance. Doing it well, however, requires a subtle approach.”

It is important to ask for feedback with curiosity, says Ms Sabatier, who as chief executive at Inspiring Potential has worked with executives at many of the UK’s leading companies. “Using questions such as ‘Why would they think that?’ demonstrates a person is self-confident, brave and open, as well as willing to learn from experience.

“Taking feedback too personally or being defensive about it is a big mistake in any interview situation.”

It is important, she adds, to ask the person providing the feedback to clarify and provide specific examples if possible.

Sometimes, of course, the feedback is vague or not particularly useful. Ms Sabatier talks of one of her clients even being told she needed a new haircut: “She was understandably upset that her hair could affect her promotion’s possibilities. However, she reflected on the feedback and realised that probably she looked too young and, although she could not do anything about her looks, she could behave in a more serious manner.” It can be important to look beyond the specific comment, and understand the overall message.

Adam Riccoboni, co-founder of MBA & Company, the online talent marketplace, agrees that feedback can range from the very vague – “you need to work on your people management skills” – to sharp observations with useful advice.

An example of the latter, he suggests, could be: “People would respond better to your management technique if you outlined attainable goals and incentivised them with reward milestones. Here’s an example of what a manager in a different department is trialling.”

Mr Riccoboni, who is co-author of the business book, The Art Of Selling Yourself, says: “The more specific your request for feedback, the better it’s likely to be. So be clear about the areas you’re hoping to improve.”

There will be times when you are certain that your behaviour has been appropriate. If this is the case, Ms Sabatier warns, “it’s important not to justify the behaviour in that situation but to accept the criticism and ask yourself, ‘What can I do differently?’”

She suggests validating the feedback by asking for additional advice from others and if you are still at a loss, do not be scared to ask for suggestions on ways to change your behaviour (if you want to change it).

Often, people want to dismiss feedback because they do not agree with it. Regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative, says Ms Sabatier, it is important to ask for specific examples to understand further how to maintain or improve your performance.

Remember, says Mr Riccoboni, that “reviews are intended to be positive experiences that assist with work relationships and most employers will adopt a strength-based approach, following up with a few areas or skills that need to be developed.

“The review should also produce the evidence needed to affect your salary and bonus, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.”

While a minority of reviews will need significant preparation and input from HR, most simply force us to grapple with difficult issues of performance that are usually pushed to one side. You might be surprised how useful asking for feedback can be and what you will learn.

It is worth bearing in mind, though, that feedback is useful only if you are genuinely willing to improve, says Mr Riccoboni. “To get the most out of a review, you have to be willing to accept criticism as well as praise, and demonstrate the self-motivation to change.

“You can show you take feedback seriously by asking to work with a designated person on an action plan, or arrange to review your progress in three months’ time.”

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Job interviews: Ask recruiter to be honest with you

David Coulter

David Coulter

One of the trickiest situations where people are keen to get feedback is after a job interview.

David Coulter, co-founder of HR Heroes, is sanguine about the usefulness of it. “You’d be advised to take feedback after an unsuccessful interview with a large pinch of salt. You may get palmed off with some platitudes along the lines of, ‘The other person was more experienced.’

“Generally speaking the feedback you receive will only be the information they want you to know or are prepared to tell you.

“The most sensible way of gaining feedback (and actually showing your real interest in the job) is to go back within 24 hours to either the hiring manager or the recruiter and simply ask them to be honest with you.”

Sue Murray, head of HR at business management software company Access Group, agrees. “Ask for feedback as soon as you know the outcome of the job interview,” she says. “Request feedback in the same way whether you were successful or not. For example, if the employer called you, ask them while they are on the telephone.”

The most important thing is to take the comments on board, but not too personally.

“After all,” says Ms Murray, “it is their personal view of you at one moment.

“Remember that sometimes there is a ‘wow’ candidate who can just pip you at the post and that isn’t a reflection on you.”

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