What I learnt from asking people for brutally honest feedback

Almost exactly a year ago I setup a public webform asking anyone and everyone to provide me with personal feedback and advice. The point of this blog is to share that experience and what I learnt from it.

Why am I writing this post?

I am definitely not writing this post for myself, and I think the reason it’s taken me so long to actually publish this post is a signal that I really didn’t want to write this. I have no idea if it will actually help anyone. But several people asked me to write about my feedback-loop experience, to share what I learnt from it, and how it impacted me. So for those of you, here goes.

Why I setup the feedback loop

About 18 months ago I very consciously decided to focus on my personal self-development — something that I’ve now come to learn from others as “radical self-inquiry”.

My interest in radical self-inquiry came after I recognised a common trait amongst most of the people that I highly respect (who are all high achievers): they are typically very self-aware with high EQ. But more importantly, I noticed they consciously invest a lot of time into deliberate personal development. And by personal development, I don’t mean they read self-help books, or go to meditation retreats. Rather, they constantly inquire into their own psychology, thoughts, emotions, and actions (and of those around them), to understand themselves on an incredibly deep level, in order to better push their own boundaries for self-improvement.

The specific concept of setting up the feedback form came after I heard Joel Pobar talk about the 360-degree feedback loops they have internally at Facebook, and the concept of data-driven human performance.

And so I decided to try and implement something similar for myself.

What I did

In July 2016 I created a basic Typeform which I then pushed out via direct emails and social media. The first version of the form had the following questions for respondents:

  • Their name
  • The nature of our relationship (how they know me)
  • How long they have known me
  • To describe my strengths
  • To describe my weaknesses
  • To share how other people describe me when I am not in the room

After looking at the responses, and taking some suggestions from others, I changed the form after about 6 months, to make the name field mandatory, and to remove the hearsay question about what others say about me. Plus I added two new questions, specifically:

  • What do you understand are my goals? What is your prediction of my success or failure in achieving those goals?
  • Any other specific advice you would like to give me?

What the responses said about me

I’ve had a total of 40 completed written responses in 12 months, 75% from people who’ve known me in some sort of work context (coworkers, employees, customers, clients, event participants, investees, mentees, etc), and the rest are from family and friends. The average time they had known me at the time of their response was 4.4 years. One person had never met me, but followed me online (my own personal cyber-stalker apparently).

The list of my weaknesses, in order of frequency of feedback, included:

  • I am “too busy” / need to slow down / need to work less / need to learn to say no / need to focus on one thing (interestingly, many of these comments were from people who wanted more of my time)
  • “few people actually really know you”, “most people only know you in one hat” (said by family and friends)
  • I need to spend less time helping others / I need to lookout for my own interests more (this was mostly from people I consider friends)
  • I need to know that it is ok to piss people off (this was specific to a few particular contexts)

All of these pieces of feedback on my weaknesses were things that I am conscious of, but it was interesting to see that other people referred to them.

The best feedback

The single response that impacted me the most was this one: “Be more personable, vulnerable and sharing what you are like as a human (outside of a role)”.

This was the one comment I thought the most about — and I mean I thought about it a lot. A lot! Why? Partly because of who said it, but also because it was specific, and more-so, it hit on something I had always consciously and deliberately avoided in a work or public environment, so unlike most of the other feedback, it challenged me.

As background, for most of my life I considered the highest compliment anyone could ever give me was to call me a machine. That’s because I have always believed that an unstoppable force will defeat any immovable object. A machine works 24/7 regardless of the size of the challenge ahead, and regardless of how it feels. Therefore, my view of achieving whatever you want is to never stop, never give up, and never ring the bell. Just give whatever it takes in order to get the job done.

“Be more human. Make yourself vulnerable.” Those concepts were something that I had often used in 1-on-1 mentoring over the last 6 years, and are concepts that I very consciously practise with my kids through my parenting style. So I agreed with them in terms of my core values. But prior to receiving that feedback, I had never before wanted to make myself vulnerable in a public environment or to work colleagues, because I’ve never wanted to appear weak.

But increasingly I have made myself more human and vulnerable to more people. I remember the cathartic moment 2 years ago when I presented at Jack Ferguson’s “Fuckups and Failures” night in Brisbane and talked about how I royally fucked up a business exit and how it impacted my family, my confidence, and my own sense of self-worth. That event required me to publicly reveal my flaws, my mistakes, my emotions, and my self-doubt. But it turned out the event translated into people having more respect for me, not less (at least that is what they told me).

Similarly with my recent experience on the Venturer Mission when I deliberately chose to have vulnerable conversations with others, and in return I received significantly more personal value back than I would have otherwise.

So now I understand a new dimension of why being human and demonstrating vulnerability both delivers and generates significant value, and perpetuates personal growth.

But more than that: being vulnerable, and living your truth, actually helps others. In the startup community we tend to celebrate success often without recognising the painful reality of the journey. If more of us share our human vulnerability then we can help others to normalise their own self-doubt, and unlock more self-realisations in others.

So now, I completely subscribe to that advice: Be more human; make yourself vulnerable, and add to that a more recent influence for me, “live your truth”.

What else I learnt from the feedback process:

  1. People are fundamentally nice. Overall, everyone was almost too nice in their feedback. The compliments and positive statements were ridiculous. Lesson: don’t be afraid of seeking feedback, as almost everyone will be too nice to you anyway.
  2. Feedback is often vague. Most responses so far have not been very specific, and from that I realised I prefer very specific feedback. Lesson: ask very specific questions if you want specific feedback.
  3. People can’t help you if they don’t know your goals. It was very obvious from the responses in the second version of the form that very few people know my personal or career goals, and therefore they are very unlikely to directly help me to achieve them. Lesson: know your goals, and make sure others know them, so they can help you achieve them.
  4. Knowing who is giving the feedback is almost critical. Originally the name field was optional, and 45% of those responses included a name that made them identifiable to me. I quickly learnt that the most meaningful feedback came when I was able to identify the person giving it. It made me understand their comments better, with more meaning. Lesson: when seeking meaningful feedback, force participants to identify themselves.
  5. You get better responses asking for advice rather than feedback. I’ve learnt through this process and also through facilitating events and mentoring that if you ask for feedback, everyone is way too polite, and will offer very little in terms of valuable, actionable insights in response. But if you ask for “advice”, then almost everyone will give you their more direct opinion(s). Lesson: ask for advice, not feedback.
  6. It is not as painful nor as scary as you think. After the initial emotional rush of reading responses, I quickly got to a point where I can read the negative feedback without emotion. Lesson: just do it; ask the tough questions of yourself, and like anything, it gets easier the more you do it.

How has this process changed me?

I think the main outcome of the process has been that I’m now not afraid of seeking and getting brutally honest feedback. I still struggle with accepting compliments — really struggle — but I now actively seek advice and feedback as often as I can remember to ask for it.

With that in mind, I’d love to receive your feedback on me, as specific and brutal as possible. Just go here and tell me what I could do better.