Obtaining Honest Feedback

Earlier this year I was lucky to participate in a group dinner with five accomplished, interesting people.

One guy at the table you’ve probably heard of — let’s call him Unaware Big Man — began dominating the dinner conversation. He kept bringing the conversation back to his own experiences. He made great points — he is an exceptionally smart person — so at first we all went along with him playing professor. But soon enough people wanted to hear from others.

Unaware Big Man didn’t get this. He did not possess, for example, the social awareness to notice the body language of someone “getting in line” to speak next. Halfway through the dinner, an older gentleman semi-forcefully interrupted Unaware Big Man: “I want to hear what John has to say,” pointing to John across the table. Unaware Big Man had no idea he was being asked to simmer it down; he let John speak for 30 seconds and then jumped in with a friendly rebuttal.

I was astonished to witness someone so successful be so oblivious to the social dynamics of the dinner.

Here’s the kicker: everyone knew what was going on but none of us gave him feedback afterwards. None of us knew him well enough to say, “Hey man, you really talked a lot at dinner — let’s hear what other people have to say next time.” That might seem like easy feedback to give, but not when it’s to a high status person. I have no vested interest in his personal growth, but I do have an interest in him not thinking ill of me. It’s possible he takes the feedback the wrong way, or takes personal offense. The potential upside vs. potential downside calculation doesn’t compel me to deliver honest feedback.

Here’s the second kicker, a more general point: I’m sure all of us at one point or another have been the Unaware Big Man or Woman. Undoubtedly there have been times when one or more other people I’ve interacted with, in their heads, thought: “Gosh, Ben is annoying right now.” And yet, they don’t give me the feedback. The feedback loop breaks down.

Obtaining honest feedback is hard. Some CEOs tell me it’s the hardest part of their job. Without feedback you can’t improve. But as you acquire more power and status, people sugarcoat and are reticent to volunteer constructive criticism.

Four thoughts on this topic jump to mind:

1. For feedback on specifics — such as your participation at a dinner or a piece of writing — I think you have to proactively ask for it. It still might not come, honestly anyways, but if you don’t ask it almost definitely will not come. The rub, of course, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. It didn’t cross Unaware Big Man’s mind to ask me for my feedback on his dinner participation. I suppose the solution is to solicit feedback even when you think you did a good job and to do so without seeming needy or insecure.

2. It’s harder to get feedback on more permanent personality traits or long-standing habits. My friends Maria and Colin have solicited this type of feedback via the Nohari and Johari exercises, but it’s awfully hard to ask someone to assess your character in the abstract. If you’re looking for this kind of what-do-you-think-of-me-as-a-person commentary, here’s an idea from a friend. Tell someone: “I’m having a hard time dating. Why do you think people are not that into me?” This will prompt a range of “ideas” about what might be unattractive about any and every aspect of your being.

3. When I ask people whether they get honest feedback, sometimes they say, “Of course I do. I always give people honest feedback, and they know this is the case — and so I have no problem receiving it in return.” Not only does this not logically follow, but these types of bull-in-china-shop people are exactly the personalities which intimidate potential feedback-givers. My theory: If you give blunt feedback, you are actually less likely to get blunt feedback in return. The law of reciprocity does not apply here.

4. Should we value feedback less when it comes from people who don’t know us than feedback that comes from people who do know us well? Intimacy to a person means you are more likely to be forthright but also more biased and invested in a relationship. Also, how much does anonymity increase honesty and is the tradeoff of not being able to contextualize feedback worth the honesty boost that comes from anonymity?

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