Career Advice

How to Get Substantive Feedback on Your Performance

Lisa M. Balbes

Last updated 12/5/2022

These days, you can’t do anything without being asked to fill out a survey providing information about your experience. Whether you attend a conference, purchase a product, or visit a website, you will receive a survey after the fact asking you to rate every part of the experience, and sometimes even to provide detailed assessments of multiple, specific aspects. Ideally, this information will be used to improve the conference, product, or website for future users. But when you select “2” or “6” on a Likert scale, does that actually provide the organizers with any actionable information?

Although the constant barrage of requests for your opinion gets tiring, you can understand the desire of individuals or organizations to understand how their efforts are being perceived by their intended audience.

Like event organizers, the only way you are going to be able to improve your own skills and professional activities is by knowing both what you are doing well and how you can improve. One of the best ways to learn that is to get someone you trust to tell you.

So how do you make that happen?

When you finish a big project, or even a little one, you might get some spontaneous comments about how it was received, or how well you did your part. For example, when you submit a paper or grant proposal, you almost always receive some sort of evaluation in return, which you can then use to improve that submission as well as future, similar efforts.

If it’s not built into the process, you can always ask recipients what they thought of your efforts. But how often have you asked that question, only to hear something like, “It was fine.”?

Although it’s nice to hear that something went well, it doesn’t really help you improve anything. So, are there ways to ask about your performance that will provide you with insightful, actionable information? Below are some tips to help you do just that.

Know What You Want and Ask for It

Maybe you are learning a new skill, feeling unsure of yourself, and simply wanting validation that you are doing it correctly. In that case, asking an expert on that particular field or instrument something like, “Am I doing this right?” is likely to get you general encouragement, along with small pointers about things you are doing incorrectly, which is probably exactly what you want.

Alternatively, if the deadline to submit your grant proposal is imminent, you may simply want someone to run a second pair of eyes over it to quickly check for typographical mistakes and blatant errors. In this situation, you don’t want detailed suggestions, structural revisions, and global changes that you won’t have time to implement. Asking someone to proofread it quickly will make that clear, and it will save your reviewer from wasting time and effort.

However, if you have sufficient lead time before the deadline and really want a structural review, make that clear instead. When you make your request, let the potential editor know that you want a review of the ideas and organization; there is no need to worry about every typo and grammatical choice. Setting clear expectations for the kind of information you need, and when you need it, is the best way to get information you can actually use.

Words Matter

Research has shown that changing how you ask for something and the specific words you use to do it can change the kind of information you receive.

When asked to provide “feedback,” people generally give vague, mostly positive information. Although the question could be answered in a more qualified or detailed way, they tended to answer the question “Was it good?” with a binary "yes" or "no." The evaluators focused on the specific aspect of an event or activity the question addressed, and what they thought about it. In addition, for many people feedback has a slightly negative connotation, as it is often associated with grades in school or performance evaluations. Feedback is past-focused, a descriptive or critical assessment of something that has been done, and it often happens after the event or activity is over.

However, the Harvard Business Review recently reported that when asked to provide advice, people react differently than they do when asked for feedback. When giving advice, they tend to be more thoughtful and critical, providing actionable points for future change. In fact, individuals who were asked to provide advice offered information on 34% more areas of improvement, and they mentioned 56% more specific ways to improve than they had when they were asked to provide feedback. In contrast to the generalities respondents provided for feedback, the advice they gave was much more detailed, including specific mentions of things that did or did not work well and ideas for changes that would improve the activity in the future.

When you ask people for advice, in effect you are asking an essay question: “When I do this sort of activity again, what should I do differently to make it better?” This approach encourages the reviewers to be more future-focused and gives them permission to offer specific actions for future growth. By implying or even outright stating that the activity will be repeated, you let your evaluators know that suggestions will be put into action. This gives them more motivation to think deeply, knowing how the results of their time and effort will be used. Of course, if you don’t take their suggestions, or at least let them know later why you didn’t, they may be unwilling to help you in the future. But that’s a different problem.

Ask the Right Person (or People)

To look at the problem of asking the right person for advice in a practical context, let’s say you are planning an activity, event, or presentation. Part of your preparation ought to include thinking about the intended audience and their expectations. Naturally, you know what you have been invited to speak about; however, you may want to find a way to ask your attendees ahead of time about their needs, wants, and expectations. Bear in mind that if you have been asked to address a class or have another reason to think your audience may not be well versed in your topic, what people say they want may not always be what they really need. In such cases, it might be better to ask a knowledgeable third party for guidance. For example, the professor in charge of a class may know better than the students (or you) what material needs to be covered.

Part of your planning for a presentation ought to include determining whom you will ask to provide feedback and advice, where appropriate. You will probably want to ask the participants for their thoughts after the event, and if there are several sessions, you might even want to arrange for some type of quick evaluation during a break. Either way, questions might include:

  • How do you think the presentation (or event) went?
  • Did it meet your expectations?
  • If it did not meet your expectations, why, and what changes would you recommend?
  • Was the marketing accurate and timely?

Staying with this analogy, there are aspects of your event that the participants may simply not know about, such as how you worked with the other members of the team, or how well you handled the budget. You would have to ask your fellow team members or the overall organizer for that type of feedback.

In more general terms, and especially when you are trying to find out how to improve your professional skills, you would ideally find someone who knows you and can suggest changes that will work for you as a person (or affirm that you are on the right track) instead of simply telling you how he or she would do something in your place. You may want to ask a professional who has a lot of experience in your particular field for feedback about your approach so you benefit from that individual’s experience. If the skill in question is one you are going to be improving over a long period of time, developing a long-term relationship with a mentor can be extremely beneficial.

Allow Sufficient Time

If you want to arrange for input before an event or presentation, make sure to solicit it far enough in advance to give you time to act on it. During a longer event, you may be able to check for feedback partway through so that you can change course midway if necessary. You may also want to collect information immediately after a project ends, when it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. Reflect on it when a similar opportunity arises.

As we all know, everyone is busy. If others are kind enough to agree to provide feedback, make sure you give them sufficient time to prepare or provide the information you require. If you are looking for specific advice as to how to improve the activity, it will help if you let them know in advance. That will encourage them to pay closer attention as things progress, watch with a critical eye, take notes, and reflect on your specific actions. When considering whom to ask for this type of evaluation, you’ll want to look for people who have some level of expertise as well as sufficient time and an interest in helping you.

Value All Feedback

Be on the lookout for unsolicited but potentially useful feedback and advice. A casual comment in the hallway can provide valuable insights into how your efforts are being perceived.

If someone says your presentation was unclear or that they had trouble following parts of it, you may be tempted to dismiss it as that person’s problem. If the individual is representative of your intended audience, you need to take that perception seriously.

Feedback and advice share some similarities, but they can be very different in practice. In order to continually improve your professional and interpersonal skills, you need to figure out both what kind of information you need and how to obtain it from others.