The Magic of Asking for Feedback: How Simple Questions Lead to Great Improvements

March 26, 2024

Asking for Feedback

Since I was seven, magic has fascinated me—not just the spectacle but also the surprise and ingenuity behind it. This fascination is why I compare asking for feedback to magic. Through my experiences, I’ve seen that asking for feedback, in any form, can lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes that go beyond initial expectations.

Let’s clarify what we mean by feedback. Picture yourself asking a colleague for advice on improving a presentation you’re set to repeat without using the word “feedback.” Instead, ask for a suggestion, recommendation, idea, or advice to improve your next presentation. This could relate to a specific task, like a presentation, or something broader, such as your role on a team or how you managed a project. The simplicity of this act, much like a magician’s trick, can lead to significant improvements and insights, underscoring the transformative power of asking for feedback.

Three Consequences of Asking For Feedback

Asking what appears to be a simple question unleashes three consequences.

  1. It changes the nature of the relationship between those involved.
  2. It causes the person asking the question to be perceived differently.
  3. It generates a treasure trove of useful information and behavior-changing ideas to propel the person asking to higher levels.

What Triggers These Outcomes?

  1. Changing the Relationship with the Person to Whom the Question is Asked

From our research, we know that building relationships is a powerful leadership competency. It is equally valuable to individual contributors. The relationship is inexorably made closer when one person asks another for suggestions or advice. Status differences are erased. Vulnerability is put on the table because the suggestion could be interpreted as a criticism. Respect for the person who is asked the question is made evident.

  1. Changing How the “Asker” is Perceived by Others

Because being asked for suggestions or advice happens so rarely, it puts you in a different category. Even though the rest of your colleagues have similar educational backgrounds, IQ points, or experience, the fact that you seek this input from colleagues signals that there is something different about you. You desire to practice continual improvement. You are not content with the status quo. You aspire to be on a track with an inexorable upward trajectory.

  1. Acquiring Practical, Concrete Ideas for Elevated Work Behavior

The third outcome is that the “asker” can accumulate extremely valuable suggestions by repeating this behavior with several colleagues. These suggestions are priceless because they come from people who know you and your behavior first-hand. Many readers will be familiar with a “Feedforward” exercise originated by Marshall Goldsmith. It involves asking a group of strangers for suggestions to accomplish a goal that you’ve selected. Of necessity, these suggestions are more theoretical and general because the giver of the suggestion is not familiar with you or your past behavior. In contrast, suggestions from past or present colleagues and bosses are tailored observations and highly specific to the person who asks. They are given with positive intent.

Check out Episode 107: 10 Attitudes About Feedback from the Most Effective Leaders on The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast. 

Shaping a Career by Asking for Feedback

My granddaughter, who was mid-way through her college education, asked me for advice about having a successful career. I told her of my conviction about the value of asking those with whom you work for their suggestions and advice, especially your work supervisors and professors in school.

She chose to pursue a degree in Veterinary Medicine, specializing in dermatological diseases. As she proceeded through her early years pursuing that degree, she applied the advice I’d given her. In a recent note to me, she wrote:

“Your advice to ask for feedback truly changed my career trajectory. It’s very uncommon for a 4th-year veterinary student to have a residency offer before completing a post-graduate internship (I’m the only student in the last 5–10 years at my institution to receive one), and I 100% attribute it to seeking out constructive criticism. For added context, following my first dermatology externship, I asked the dermatologist to provide one thing I could improve upon before my next externship with her in a few months. I received great advice, and when I reached out again for feedback following my second externship, she set up a series of interviews, which led to my residency position. Not only did my career take a huge step forward, but I genuinely learned from the suggestions and criticism. I now ask each of my clinicians on every clinical medicine rotation for concrete ways I can improve.

As a side note, I had 20 interviews for my medicine internship (which I have to complete prior to starting my residency). I asked each interviewer for one way I could become a stronger intern and received phenomenal suggestions. Your advice continues pushing me forward in my education, and I cannot thank you enough.” 

This is a classic example of the magic of asking for feedback. I deem it the most valuable advice we can give young people or anyone early in their career. Practicing this could diminish the current plague of alienation and anxiety among our youth. It would elevate feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. It would strengthen positive connections with peers and with the adults in their lives.

The act of seeking feedback is a powerful catalyst for personal and professional growth, akin to unlocking a magical potential within ourselves. This practice enhances our skills and knowledge and transforms our relationships and how we are perceived in the workplace. The story shared underscores the remarkable impact of embracing feedback, illustrating how it can pave the way for unprecedented opportunities and success.

In conclusion, the essence of asking for feedback lies in its ability to foster continuous improvement, build stronger connections, and open doors to new possibilities. It’s a straightforward yet profound strategy that can significantly influence one’s career trajectory and overall development. Let this encourage you to embrace seeking feedback with openness and eagerness, allowing it to guide you toward achieving your full potential.

-Jack Zenger