How to Use Feedback to Accelerate Career Growth
The company you are currently working for has a shared reality. And this reality includes the perceived health and overall condition of your organization, its culture, and the beliefs and opinions of how you fit into it, including what value others believe you are contributing.
Consider this; if the company you work for has 100 employees, your reality, your perception of how well you are doing, and your measure of the value you are adding to the organization make up just 1% of your organization’s reality.
What does this mean? It means that what you believe to be true may likely not be. If you’re not actively soliciting feedback, analyzing it, integrating it into your day-to-day actions, and measuring your improvements, you’re not impacting the shared reality of your organization enough to be recognized for the value you’re bringing to it.
So far, my career has spanned more than two decades. In that time, I’ve seen what integrating quality feedback can do for people. I’ve witnessed poor or average performers leap well ahead of others in terms of growth and happiness because they did the work to gather and integrate feedback. I’ve also witnessed very competent professionals, or “rock stars,” fall behind the pack for lacking the knowledge and understanding of how they fit into the reality of their organization.
As for myself, I’ve lost and gained some ground, always proportionally to the amount of feedback I would choose to embrace or not. In my efforts to better master how I solicit and integrate feedback, I have put together a series of steps I will try to follow consistently, and I will endeavour to teach others to do the same. I am sharing these steps with you in this post.
Feedback as data
There are specific reasons I refer to feedback as data and why I choose to call my strategy a “data strategy” versus a feedback strategy.
When I consider data and the strategies for gathering and integrating learnings from that data, I tend to be more objective and pragmatic. When I focus on feedback alone, I get more emotionally attached to what I’m hearing, sometimes I might even try to justify or defend the actions that were the focus of the feedback I received — not always useful.
How thinking of feedback as data might help you as well:
- Data needs to have multiple sources. When you consider feedback, you may not be motivated enough to solicit enough of it from enough people to get an accurate picture of where you might be able to improve. Data, however, activates the statistical part of your brain, the part that seeks to study and find multiple lenses to look through and analyze.
- Data integrity needs to be preserved. You don’t want data that mutate right in front of you; it’s essential to keep it pure. When getting feedback from someone, you might be tempted to justify your actions or ask questions to get more detail. Questioning feedback may motivate the other person to rethink their feedback to you or, worse, change it or retract it. You want real data — letters that form words that form paragraphs that, when analyzed later, will yield insight.
- Data needs to have a high degree of quality and usefulness. You might think of feedback as a question and answer exchange, “What did you think of my speech, do you think I performed well?” — “I thought that was a great talk, well done!”. You would be partially right to think this way, but like data, the feedback has a measure of quality and usefulness. The method for querying the data will affect its quality and usefulness to you.
- Data sources need to be queried regularly. With feedback, it’s easy to be content with one-off exchanges; they feel productive. With data, we are more accustomed to getting frequent snapshots to build a more cohesive picture over time. By gathering data often and consistently, you are greasing the wheels in a way; you are making it easier for the people you are soliciting feedback from, to expose higher quality data, and more of it.
The Feedback Data Strategy
1. Have a goal
Be specific about the data you want to gather. Focusing on particular areas for improvement will make it easier for you to spot prime opportunities for soliciting feedback.
Since the end goal is career growth, thinking about what type of improvements will add value to the organization will thereby accelerate your growth within the organization.
Communication is always a good start. Investing time and energy in improving your communication skills is catalytic; as you grow, you trigger greater insight and opportunity.
Example goal: By the end of this quarter, I will be more clear, concise, and complete in how I communicate ideas and concepts.
2. Pull quality data
Think about the last time you gave someone feedback: How useful do you think that feedback was? Did you enjoy giving that feedback?
I have found it common that most people dislike giving feedback, or they feel uncomfortable giving it. Because of this, the quality and usefulness of the input often depend on how you solicit that feedback.
With our example goal in mind, you will want to ask good questions to get back quality data.
Examples of poor questions that may not yield quality data:
- “What did you think of my talk, do you think I was concise when expressing my idea?”
- “Do you feel the ideas in my presentation were clear, did they make sense to you, or do you think I need to do better?”
These types of questions will often return a yes or a no, with little useful information you can take action on. Consider these kinds of questions instead:
- “What do you think I should start doing or continue doing to be more concise when expressing my ideas?”
- “What should I stop doing to make the concepts in my presentation more clear?”
- “I’m working at becoming a better communicator, what should I start, stop, or continue doing so that the ideas and concepts I share are more clear and concise?”
These questions will make others think, and more often result in quality data you can analyze and incorporate later.
Remember data integrity. You want to accept the feedback objectively, without becoming defensive or asking questions that might prompt the other person to change or retract the input.
If the feedback is unclear to you, ask for clarity on the input only. If you feel the need to explain yourself or give reasons for your actions — don’t.
If you ask someone for feedback once or twice, you may not get the quality data you are after, at least not right away. Quality data requires consistency; you will need to ask regularly.
Asking for feedback consistently and regularly will open others up to you. It will become more comfortable for them to give you the data you need so you can improve, especially if you are actively listening, taking it in objectively, and thanking them for the valuable feedback.
3. Record and analyze
You now have your goal, and you have asked several people good questions that yielded high-quality data. Do yourself a favour and write down the feedback right away. Use a spreadsheet and note the feedback verbatim, if possible.
With feedback from multiple people on the same topic, you might find yourself with duplicate data, or even conflicting data. We’re not going to worry too much about that because if you capture enough of it from enough people over some time you will begin to unearth a trend, a broader picture of the areas where you might start working to improve yourself.
Let’s analyze some example feedback and extract some useful data to analyze.
- “I enjoyed the presentation, and I think I get the ideas, but there was a lot of information to digest, maybe you can start slowing down a bit.”
- “Your point made some sense, but your explanation ran very long, and it took forever, you could have probably shortened your input so that others would have more time to chime in.”
- Too much info to digest, need to slow down
- Explanations ran long, and input can be shorter
- Start breaking up information into smaller chunks
- Start summarizing ideas and concepts at the end
- Start asking the audience if I am moving too fast or too slow
- Stop monopolizing meeting time, stick to an agenda and timebox my talk
The data and analysis should be recorded in the same place you originally recorded the feedback. Make it a habit.
Now you can begin to integrate feedback into your daily actions. Here you will combine your goal with your data analysis and create a short, simple, guiding principle that you can often revisit while you work to make improvements.
The guiding principle should fit on an index card, and it will become one of many that you put together, review, and hold onto as you grow in your career. Here is the final result:
I will be more clear, concise, and complete in how I communicate ideas and concepts. I will timebox my turn to speak such that others have an opportunity to contribute. I will break up information into smaller digestible chunks. I will ask the audience if they need me to slow down or speed up. And I will summarize my ideas and concepts at the end of my talk.
Before your next presentation, meeting, or written proposal, you can revisit your new principle.
You started with a goal, and goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound). Your goal was to improve by the end of the quarter, so as you begin to approach the quarters-end, you will start to measure your progress.
How do you measure progress or success for actions taken against feedback? You ask!
If you’ve been making vast improvements, you’re likely to expect that people have noticed, maybe they even complimented you on the changes. Unfortunately, this is unlikely. People may not see your improvements unless they are actively looking for them.
And so to measure, we are going to restate our original question used when soliciting feedback.
“I’ve been working at becoming a better communicator by being more clear, concise, and complete when sharing ideas and concepts. What should I start, stop, or continue doing to make further improvements?”
That’s right; we are starting the cycle again. And if you’ve been consistent, you should see more quality data you can effectively use. However, in this part of the data strategy, you might get short, simple answers that don’t measure up to the quality requirement, but I still consider some of these useful in there own way — and its feedback that feels good to get after you’ve been consistently integrating feedback into daily actions:
“I’ve noticed the positive changes, well done.”
Things to remember
Quality data takes time to get; it requires consistency — you need to ask for a lot of feedback.
You might cycle through the steps in this data strategy over days or weeks for a single goal, or even months or years for multiple objectives. You will iterate on these steps as you get better at soliciting feedback.
Ultimately you should modify this data strategy as you see fit and make it your own. I would love to hear about the changes you make — learning is a life-long process.
Ricardo Luevanos is an engineering manager and leader who has been shipping software for 20+ years. He is a continuous learner working to build happier and more inclusive teams and is currently Director of Engineering at Zwift Inc. — all opinions his own. Connect via LinkedIn and Twitter, or RicardoLuevanos.com.