Sarah Cordivano
Published in

Sarah Cordivano

The art of requesting feedback on your DEI work

Picture of different threads — brown, white, green and weaving tools inclding need, comb and loom on gray background.
Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

One of the hidden perks for me of working from home is the opportunity to passively listen to my partner, Elad, having his meetings and vice versa. As a partner in a VC fund, he has a lot of conversations with startup founders in order to give feedback on technical issues or business strategy. After a particularly interesting meeting sensitively and constructively delivering feedback, we talked about the value of feedback and how to approach it from both sides. Knowing how to give and accept feedback are communication and stakeholder-intensive skills to learn. The obvious benefit of requesting and receiving feedback is the opportunity to learn from the knowledge, successes and failures of others. This blog post is inspired by those conversations and how we can get the most out of them.

Why ask for feedback

Everyone says feedback is a gift and enables us to learn and grow. Most importantly, it allows us to greatly improve the quality of our work by crowdsourcing the insight and advice of others. Asking for feedback requires us to be vulnerable and humble and admit that we don’t have all the answers. Feedback on the DEI work we do is especially valuable because best practices constantly evolve and different situations require different approaches. There is no one-size-fits-all. By asking for feedback, we can learn from the sometimes painful mistakes of others so that we do not make them ourselves.

How to ask for feedback

Knowing how to ask for feedback requires tact and awareness. When we ask for feedback from someone we’re asking for their time and energy. Don’t underestimate the cost of that. Be strategic in asking for feedback and make sure you do it in a way that respects the time of yourself and the person you are requesting feedback from. If you are seeking feedback on an upcoming project, think of the two or three people in your network that would be best to offer advice. Keep the list of feedback givers short and relevant.

If you already know someone personally who’d be a great fit to give you feedback on your project (perhaps because they recently completed a similar project), ask them first. If you don’t personally know anyone to ask, I found the best way is to ask for volunteers from a forum such as a LinkedIn group or a relevant Slack channel. In these groups, ask for people that have relevant experience or have recently done a similar project. Ask them if they are willing to share some of their knowledge. The benefit of asking for volunteers from a forum or group is that you do not pressure anyone (especially people you don’t know) to offer their time. Only people who are willing to offer their advice will reply.

Alternatively, you can also ask a friend in your network to make an introduction to someone they know who has relevant experience. If this is the case, make sure your friend making the introduction is ALWAYS using double-opt-in, essentially getting the interest and consent of the third party before making the introduction.¹

In general, if you do not personally know someone or have a double-opt-in introduction to them, do not expect them to have the time or interest to give feedback. Offering feedback is a non-trivial task when done properly. But no matter who you ask, give them the option on how they’d like to offer their feedback (most often feedback sessions happen in virtual or in-person meetings, but some may prefer to give feedback via email or chat). And of course, always give that person the chance to decline. No one’s time is at your disposal. Be extra mindful of asking folks that offer this type of advice and consulting as their business, don’t assume or expect unpaid work from them. Why not pay them for their expertise ?— That’s what they do for a living!

When to Ask for Feedback

The best time to ask for feedback is after you’ve already done some research and have a sense of your project's goals, scope, and initial approach. Don’t seek feedback when you are completely new to the topic because a lot of information is surely already available to you. You can save your feedback giver some time by doing initial research on your own. The value does not come from requesting basic information from your feedback giver, but instead in finding out the critical factors for the success of their project and what lessons they’ve learned along the way.

How to have a feedback meeting

Be prepared to give a quick introduction to the project you are requesting feedback about. Keep it short, only 5-minutes. In the introduction, explain what you’re trying to accomplish, what you’ve already done and specific challenges or blockers you’ve faced. In advance, prepare specific, direct questions to focus the feedback conversation. It’s even better if you send this introduction and questions in an email before your conversation to give the person the context in advance and a chance to prepare their thoughts.

During your meeting, after your introduction, give the person a chance to react but also let them know that you have some specific questions prepared. Take clear, brief notes during the session so you can actually remember what you’ve learned. Before you end the conversation, ask the person if there’s anything else they want to offer to help make your project as successful as possible — this can be the most valuable bit of feedback because it is often on aspects you’ve completely missed. Keep the conversation short, 30–45 minutes. If the feedback giver wants to speak further or schedule another meeting, they will offer.

In general, in these conversations, be humble to open to learn. Be sure you give the person offering you feedback lots of space and time to share their thoughts. In these situations, you want to be speaking 10 to 15% of the time, maximum. The whole point is to give the other person the chance to share their views and experience. Dominating the conversation with your thoughts or defending your approach is a huge waste of everyone’s time and misses the whole point of requesting feedback.

Incorporating feedback

Unfortunately, I've found there are two main mistakes people make when incorporating feedback into their work:

  1. Ignoring or dismissing any feedback or advice that doesn’t confirm what you already plan to do.
    Perhaps this is obvious but I think it’s really common. Either subconsciously or not, people sometimes only seek guidance that already reinforces their planned approach. This is especially common with founders or others who are really immersed in and dedicated to their topic or project. They do not have the mindset to welcome feedback. Don’t be this person because it wastes everyone’s time. If you don't really want feedback, don’t ask for it.
  2. Over-correcting or fully changing course based on one person’s feedback.
    It’s an easy trap to receive a bit of feedback and fully change your plans or approach because of it. Keep it all in perspective. Each feedback giver has their own biases and limitations of knowledge. No one has all the answers. When someone offers feedback based on their knowledge gained from previous work- the scope of that work may not always overlap with yours Some key factors may be different or irrelevant. To keep this all in perspective, collect feedback from more than one person and develop an eye for what is and isn't relevant and actionable for your project.

The best way to incorporate feedback into your project is to first avoid those two mistakes. And be sure to have your specific questions prepared in advance. This really helps to get actionable feedback you can successfully incorporate into your work. Ideally, the feedback you get in these sessions answers some of the key unknowns you have identified in your project. With the notes you’ve taken, you can start addressing the gaps and uncertainties in your project.

Feedback as an opportunity for growth

As professionals working in DEI, we often get feedback whether we ask for it or not. But feedback allows us to learn and grow, and importantly, improve our work and relationships. When you get feedback, even when you don’t ask for it, do not get defensive. Instead, think about it as an opportunity to improve your work and learn something new. Especially with DEI, a topic that many people working in the field are super passionate about, it’s important to separate your own emotions, interests and worth from your professional expertise.

A thoughtful approach to feedback

A final thought on requesting feedback: Think about the person most critical to your professional success, perhaps a mentor or someone who gave you guidance through difficult situations. Think about what qualities or expertise made that person so pivotal to you. Try to be that person for others. Often DEI professionals in Europe work as a team of one. They often operate as the sole expert in their organization. This can be a lonely place and sadly misses the opportunity of idea sparring that really allows us to grow our knowledge. If you have the time and energy for it, generously pass on your knowledge to others.

Here’s a quick recap of the key points in this blog:

  1. Do prep work ahead of time to research your project and identify specific questions you want feedback on.
  2. Be respectful of the time of feedback givers, make sure they are interested in offering you feedback first.
  3. Thoughtfully incorporate feedback into your project. Avoid only seeking feedback that confirms your plans or alternatively over-correcting based on just one person’s advice.
  4. Pay it forward by agreeing to give feedback to others. Be the person other people want to ask for feedback from.

Footnotes

¹A quick note (rant) on the importance of double opt-in introductions: I could write an entire blog on the why and how of the double-opt-in introduction, but I’ll spare you. Just know that, to me, it’s the number one most important bit of online professional etiquette. Without it, you really damage your professional relationships. In short: if you are the one making the introduction to two people who don’t already know each other, make sure they are BOTH interested in that introduction before making it. It doesn’t matter if they may have similar interests or goals.Get their consent first. This is true for ALL introductions, but especially if there’s any financial angle to the introduction — selling services, sponsorships or memberships. A lot of people confuse someone’s interest and passion for DEI for a willingness 100% of the time to discuss, exchange or advise on the topic. DEI work is still a job, just like any other.

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This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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