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?

17 comments on “Obtaining Honest Feedback
  • Re #3 – I think that many people who give blunt feedback give very poor advice. The very personality traits that allow them to make strong statements about others might be related to an inability to read those social cues that are truly important.

  • Nice comments with feedback. I especially liked the example in relation to ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

    When I ask for feedback, or when someone offers some (much more of the former than the latter) I always ask questions that delve into more detail.

    Questions like: “What could I have done to make it better?” or “How would you have done it differently?” I’m after specific actions that I can do next time. Anything that gives me more choice.

    That said, I know I’m a glutton for feedback, and regularly prepare those giving me feedback to give ‘brutal feedback’. I do know, however, that most peoples ego is fragile, and needs to be treated carefully.

  • I don’t know about feedback but the solution to the Unaware Big Man is to start a side conversation. Whisper to be “respectful.”

  • Going one step further, it tells a lot about a person’s character in how they react to honest feedback. Do they make light of it (insecure, embarrassed), get angry or dismissive (again insecure, or maybe willfully blind to their flaws), or do they accept the feedback graciously (secure, but humble).

  • I have an extended family relative who is/was an Unaware Big Man that has held VP-level executive roles at fortune 100 companies for the last 15 years or so.

    When I was a college student he proudly retold the story of breaking his chopsticks and demanding a fork during negotiations in Asia (it was a story he’d obviously told with much pride on many occasions). I was appalled and explained to him why the he made himself look exactly like the caricature of an ugly american cowboy who was culturally insensitive and rude.

    He stopped and stared at me and I realized that no one had questioned him because he was the head of his division.

    2 years later he proudly reported to me of his 18-city asian tour where he politely ate everything he was served with whatever utensils arrived. He spoke of working on learning cultural sensitivity and how it had improved his ability to get deals done in Asia.

    That experience taught me that it is important to seek out a sprinkling of irreverents in your life to keep your success from being the source of your failures.

  • @Biting Tongue – Thanks for sharing it. There’s a fantastic lesson for global travelers in your comment. Most westerners have this problem while they travel to Asia and instead of recognizing cultural diversity (eating with hands/chopsticks or just crowd on the street) they condemn it point blank. This may be because of the *inability* as nicely illustrated by Russel Harper in his fine comment above.

    That’s feedback enough.

  • Signaling an insensitivity to harsh feedback is important too.

    Last year I was involved in a series of international business planning competitions. We agreed early on not to spare harsh feedback from each other when we needed it, so if someone messed up, we would point it out.

    I think if you signal to people around you that giving feedback won’t hurt the relationship (and you actually follow through when people *give* harsh feedback) you’re more willing to change.

    Unfortunately, people hate receiving feedback. Intellectually they may like the idea of constructive criticism, but our internal natures rage against attacks on our ego, ideas and personalities. You need to train yourself to avoid the gut reactions of defensiveness and hostility to increase the chance of receiving real feedback.


  • Other people’s comments on Facebook:

    a couple points from an article that touches on your thoughts.

    -Your ideas about what others think of you hinge on your self-concept—your own beliefs about who you are. “You filter the cues that you get from others through your self-concept,”
    … Read More
    -The powerful and the beautiful-
    Neither group gets accurate feedback. “People are too dazzled or intimidated to react honestly to them.” Michael Levine, the head of a Hollywood public relations agency, has run up against many such people, who end up with a deluded sense of self thanks to a coterie of sycophants. If you are among the bold and the beautiful, he says, you must invite feedback by playing on the fact that people want desperately to be liked by you. “You must let them know that your approval is conditional upon their honesty with you.”


    Honesty in honestly uncompromising people is a rarity of disparity indeed. Think about it: self-delusion and presumptive aggrandizement are far more palatable to the self-centered ego than reflective truths and input. The dynamic is one of learned manifestation; in that is ingrained in highly competitive people and societies that value … Read Morecompetition – be affirmative, not reflective. Be decisive, not contemplative. In order to fix the feedback loop breakdown, don’t we need to re-evaluate the priorities of a society that is often contrary to these behaviors?

  • What has worked for my brother and I is that we have a mutual understanding that we respect each other, and when we give feedback or tell the other person “you’re being a jerk”, we know that it’s the behaviour we’re trying to fix. We KNOW, implicitly, that it’s not a personal attack. Having this mutual respect helps us listen to each other without being offended; we know that we’re only trying to help the other progress and grow.

    In the classroom, we as teachers are encouraged to build a community where students and teacher alike understand the purpose of feedback. Ideally, there should be no stress involved; in the proper learning environment, students offer each other ideas and next steps to their work with the understanding that constructive criticism is not meant to be taken personally. We all have something wonderful to offer. It’s just that we all have something to work on, too.

    To relate my comments back to the workplace: it will take time, but I would suggest perhaps taking the time to build a culture where everyone understands that feedback is not at all meant to be taken personally. Feedback is meant to be there to help each other progress. It doesn’t matter where the help comes from either: if a newbie is bringing up a point to one with seniority, it shouldn’t be perceived as arrogance from the new kid, but simply a refreshing idea.

    Of course, it also depends on the attitude that comes with the feedback. An arrogant demeanor is an arrogant demeanor, but if the above culture is established in the workplace, perhaps it would be easier to ignore the arrogance and truly listen to the advice being given.

  • I think in those situations the other people bite their tongues because in the back of their skull they postulate that if the UBM acts like this in a conversation, he probably doesn’t take criticism well.

  • Am I the only person who finds asking for feedback embarrassing? It seems like taking the friendship too seriously…like it’s too organized and for self-improvement. It’s kind of like my hesitancy to admit that I’m trying to be a better person, talk to more people, etc. It makes friendships SEEM forced and artificial (though it shouldn’t…it should make them more honest and genuine).

  • What I find challenging sometimes is the problem of contextual behaviour and how people then take your behaviour, which is appropriate in certain circumstances, but how it does not translate properly to other circumstances.

    For example, I have a number of friends who do or have done British Parliamentary style debating (yes debating nerds). With these friends it is entirely appropriate for me to be confrontational and disputatious in normal conversation, for me to attack the premises of their arguments and for me to test the limits of their logic. Why? Because they enjoy it and we share the same values in that context. If, however, I found myself in another context doing the same thing, say a family gathering, where I continuously attacked people for their lack of substance in an argument, for incoherence, or for inconsistency, my family would probably disown me.

    So, when we confuse the context in which we find ourselves and mistake one context for another, often on the borderline between and within friendship/family/professional groups that is when I find, or have found, feedback to be useful. When I have misunderstood the social cues and realised my error or have a close friend or family member nudge me – an oh ‘Oh bugger’ moment.

    But, if you are in a specific context and continuously missing social cues and you don’t respond to feedback within that environment, then I don’t understand how you can be as successful as you say the gentleman above was.

  • I find the term “feedback” too sanitized to get the reaction I really want from people when I’m trying to learn about myself. That’s what this is really about – self knowledge. If you’re looking for little tweaks around the edges, then maybe the word “feedback” is ok. But I believe most of our problems stem from deeply embedded personality traits that we’re unaware of.

    I like to ask very close friends to analyze my character – weaknesses and strengths. Hearing thoughtful analysis is beyond comparison with easily digestible “feedback”.

    Once you move past your insecurities and open up to truly listen to someone critique your personality at the most basic level, you can’t get enough of it. I am a very introspective person, so I may not be quite the typical case, but I think this type of analysis is crucial for anyone’s growth.

  • Ben, Such good timing for this post because just this week you gave me unsolicited feedback. And I loved it.

    It’s such a gift when someone takes the time to criticize you even if you didn’t ask for it. I mean, the person has to think of decent way to say it, and the best delivery method, and then put up with the ensuing dialogue. You did all that. Thanks 🙂


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