PM Notebook
The Trick is Asking in the Right Way to Obtain Honest, Usable and Valuable Feedback
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.          

For over two decades, I’ve had the responsibility for managing technical, project and program teams.  As part of my efforts to improve my professional performance, I’ve utilized a variety of methods to evaluate my performance and identify actions to improve my effectiveness as an organizational leader.  This article describes a method that has evolved from many iterations of soliciting feedback from my colleagues.

 

Asking others for feedback

In my continuing activities aimed at improving my professional performance, I've experimented with different techniques and methods to solicit feedback from my co-workers.  I’ve tried ad hoc approaches (“Say, do you have any feedback for me?”) and have participated in rigorous consultant-led feedback mechanisms (involving many feedback providers who answer hundreds of questions).  I’ve found that the most honest, most usable, and most valuable feedback has come to me when the feedback discussion includes these three elements:

  1. A structure to the performance discussion (vs. just asking “do you have any feedback for me”)
  2. A mix of specific questions and open-ended questions
  3. Anonymity for feedback-providers (particularly when I have influence over their career and compensation)

I’ve incorporated all three of these elements in the “Enabling Effective Feedback” method described in this article.  If you are in a position of leadership and are seeking feedback from colleagues, I’d recommend trialing this method and determining if it provides you with truly honest, usable and valuable feedback.  The two key components of this method are:

  1. A Feedback Framework that outlines five areas of leadership feedback
  2. An approach that lets you acquire honest, usable, valuable feedback from colleagues

  

 

A Feedback Framework for Leaders – The Topics to Explore

To help increase the accuracy, completeness and usefulness of feedback that I solicit, I’ve developed a framework of five sections that provides very useful information to me.  Over several iterations of use, I’ve arrived at a set of twelve fine-tuned questions that fit into this framework.

 

This framework focuses on performance within the context of the company’s and organization’s overall goals and methods of operation, but it doesn’t consider the specific leadership goals a company may have.  The five sections of the framework are:

  1. Leadership and My Message.  This validates, for me, my effectiveness in communicating a good set of organizational and performance goals for the organization, teams and individuals.
  2. Overall Perception.  This helps me understand how credible and effective I am as an organization leader.
  3. Strengths and Impact.  Going beyond the superficial "What are my strengths?" question, this also asks to understand the impact of perceived strengths.  (If my strengths are not relevant to organization, team and individual performance, then this is likely to be a shortcoming).
  4. Improved Effectiveness and Impact.  Of course I need to have help in identifying performance gaps.  This area helps me understand the gaps as well as understanding how these areas of underperformance are holding the organization back from superior performance.
  5. Advice to me.  This is where I learn how others would do my job.  More often than not, some very good suggestions emerge from this area of discussion.

Here is the entire performance Feedback Framework along with the twelve performance feedback questions – also provided are fields for recording discussions points and specific points of feedback.

Performance Area Specific Performance Questions Group Observations/Points for Discussion
Leadership  and My Message

What do you believe I have been conveying as two or three of my priorities for the organization over the past year?

What evidence have you seen that indicates that these priorities have been translating into action by the organization and improved results?

In your opinion, have these been the right areas of focus?  If not, what do you think the two or three priorities should have been?

What do you feel should be one or two key organizational priorities for this coming year?

 
Overall Perception

In your eyes, where I have been successful as a leader?

Where have I failed as a leader (or where I have been only marginally successful)?

When I am not in the room, what do you say about me to others?

 
Strengths and Impact

What are two or three strengths that you see in my actions and behaviors?

How have these areas of strength enabled, encouraged, or achieved success for the organization?

 
Improved Effectiveness and Impact

What are one or two areas where my actions or behaviors should be improved or corrected?

What has been the impact that these gaps have had in constraining the performance of individuals, teams, or the organization?

 
Your Advice to me I want to be successful in this company, and certainly want my organization to be successful.  What advice do you have for me that might help me achieve increased success?  

 

 

Enabling Honest, Usable, Valuable Feedback – The Method

The Feedback Framework and its questions are the basis for all of the feedback discussions.  When soliciting feedback from peers of mine, I’ll conduct an information discussion that is based on the framework and its questions.

 

When soliciting feedback from individuals who are within my organization (or others whose performance rating or compensation are set or influenced by me), I’m conscious of the difficulties in getting honest, usable, valuable feedback.  Usually I schedule the feedback activities so that they occur after the company’s performance and compensation decisions have been finalized, but before notification to employees has occurred.  This removes the possibility for criticism that feedback to me could influence my actions in setting performance ratings or compensation levels, and also eliminates the possibility that my performance rating or compensation decisions will be influenced by the feedback provided to me.

 

The secrets to getting anonymous (and thus more likely to be honest) feedback are these:

  • Assemble a group of people that will provide the feedback.  Don’t ask individuals to provide feedback.
  • I generally invite more people than will really participate; I don’t know who actually does participate.
  • Naturally, I’m not in the room when this group goes through the Feedback Framework and constructs the feedback for me.
  • The team appoints a representative who will discuss the group’s feedback with me.

Here are the steps that allow the assembly of feedback from individuals, but ensure anonymity for all participants:

  1. Kickoff.  I schedule a brief session with the managers in my organization to introduce the topic of ‘group generated feedback’ for me.  During this session, our time is spent mostly on the topics covered in this article.
  2. Feedback Construction.  One of my managers or I will invite a group of people to a ‘feedback construction’ meeting.  The group invited for this session usually includes all of the individuals who current report directly to me (regardless of how short or long they have reported to me).  Sometimes other individuals who have either reported to me for some portion of the year or have had meaningful interaction with me over the previous year are invited.  Generally, I don’t know who actually attends.
    • The ‘feedback construction’ meeting itself is self-organizing (much like a group of jurors will self-organize).
    • The purpose of the meeting is for them to discuss and generate my feedback as a group.  This is feedback to me from the group.  The group decides for themselves the criteria for including discussion points/comments/feedback into the group feedback that is ultimately generated.
    • The period of performance to be considered for this feedback is generally the previous 12 months.
    • Participants can elect to use my Feedback Framework, or they can have an alternative framework.  I do ask that all points in my Feedback Framework be covered in the feedback discussions and the subsequent delivery of feedback to me.
    • No spying permitted – no one from the group will approach me to tell me what individuals were saying or what was discussed.  This is a private meeting, with discussion points, topics, etc. all to be held in confidence among the direct participants only.
  3. Feedback Discussion.  The feedback discussion is led by one person from the group; the group determines who this will be. 
    • I prefer that this be a one-to-one meeting (I’ve found that when the entire group participates, there is a tendency for individuals to leap into the conversation and amplify certain aspects of the feedback messages – this, unfortunately, can pinpoint the source of feedback to a specific individual, which violates the principle of anonymity). This feedback meeting with me can be later in the same day as the feedback creation meeting (preferred, since the topic will be fresh in the feedback presenter’s mind) or the next day.
    • The feedback presenter can elect to provide feedback in written form or as verbal only.
    • There are no alternate or duplicated paths for feedback to me – the only path to me for this feedback is via the one-to-one meeting for sharing the group’s feedback to me.
    • When I am receiving the feedback, I will not challenge the message itself or the validity of the message.  In all likelihood, I will ask clarifying questions to help me understand the feedback.

I always take this feedback seriously, and most times do have a brief written improvement plan; however, I don’t share that plan with others.


 

What’s Next?

Almost every feedback discussion (in which the group’s feedback is shared with me) has revealed some important insight that has been important.  I’m sometimes humbled by a frank, yet accurate observations that absolutely demand my attention.  I’ve never been let down by this process.

 

If your professional development as a leader can be aided by useful observations from your colleagues, then don’t wait another week: take this Feedback Framework and the method and see how you can use them in your current situation.