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Feedback can seem like a scary thing — whether you're the one getting it, or sharing it. When things are not going well and there's room for improvement, it's uncomfortable to hear or to have to tell someone.
The truth is, we all need and want feedback on our performance. That’s how we get better at our jobs and advance in our careers. Just like the products we build — it's absolutely essential.
Positive feedback tells us what to do more of, and the negative tells us what to do less of.
Receiving and sharing real feedback well is an active skill, and like any other, it needs to be worked on to be great.
Coming off the back of 2021 performance reviews, I decided that for this week, I’d focus on the following question:
How can you get better at receiving performance feedback from your boss or your peers?
Fortunately, the advice for this one is super simple to remember.
The more coachable you are, the more likely people will be to take the risk and time to give you their feedback.
So, I how can you be a person that is more “coachable”?
1. Ask for feedback.
Again, just like the products you build, where you have to setup the right loops and mechanisms to actually get the necessary feedback to iterate and grow — the exact same thing applies to you.
People by and large want to help you, and asking them directly for feedback is the easiest and most reliable way to help them help you and to get it.
By asking a wide variety of stakeholders — from your boss/manager, to your design, data/BI, and engineering partners, through to your peers on other teams like marketing and support — you're signaling that you're someone who wants to improve, to make others peoples' jobs easier, and appreciates being “coached”.
When people feel that way — you've setup the most reliable way to get real and actionable feedback to help you do a better job.
Here are some examples of questions you can ask to get the ball-rolling:
"What would completely dominating this role look like to you"?
This is usually asked to your boss, managers, or senior leadership. This question helps you understand where you should be aiming for, and off this question you can ask something along the lines of, “What do you see as the biggest strength I should double down on, and what's the biggest growth area for me to focus on?”
"What's one thing I can do differently to be a better PM for you?"
This is usually asked to peers, and gives you a good idea of how the people you collaborate with see you, and how to add more value to their performance.
“What's one thing I can do differently to be a better leader/mentor for you?”
You can ask this if you're in a leadership or mentoring position, and it helps you get valuable insights into what people who look up to you are looking for in a product leader.
“What's one thing I should consider doing more or less of?"
This is a question you can ask to any person on the team that you work with, and it gives you 2 direct answers, (1) around what you do well, and (2) what you don't do well.
These are just examples, the purpose being to illustrate the intent of the question, as well as one key detail — keep them open-ended. Like customer interviews, avoid binary questions — they can be misleading and usually don't give you much useful info at all. For instance, “Do you think I'm doing a good job as a PM for you?”.
What sort of answer do you think you'll get there? Unless you're doing something terrible, most likely — “Yes, you're great.” That's useless info for you and an easy route of an answer for someone.
So, make sure you're asking the right types of questions.
2. Listen actively.
Have you ever had someone ask you a question, and then as you start answering immediately feel like they were just checking a box and are not really interested in hearing as their attention drifts off?
That's because it's really easy to tell when someone isn't actually listening to you.
It can be tempting to add to your 1:1 agenda, “ask for feedback!”, towards your important goal of being more coachable, and then just ask it for it for the sake of it while failing to really hear what the person says — ending with a, “thanks that's great feedback!”.
When someone gives you feedback, whether solicited or unsolicited, they're putting in work to help you get better. Listen actively with intent.
This means being prepared to listen with your full attention, observing the verbal and non-verbal messages to truly understand what they are saying, and then giving that person affirmations that you listening.
If people feel like you're not that interested in hearing them out, they won't want to do it again.
3. Show that you hear the feedback.
After listening actively to the feedback you've received, the next thing to do is to show that person you've really heard them out.
These are some ways to do that:
Ask open ended questions
Ask probing questions
Ask for clarification
These not only show you've heard them, but also dramatically help you better comprehend and retain the feedback.
4. Be grateful and respectful.
Genuinely thank the person who just gave you feedback — always.
Managers and peers want you to succeed, and even if someone gives feedback you don't agree with, upsets you, or they just share it in an unproductive way (giving feedback is also a skill to be refined) — it's most likely coming from a good place, so be respectful and show appreciation for someone trying to help you grow.
5. Don't be defensive.
Never argue back — it's counterproductive and kills your chances of being someone who is “coachable”.
There will certainly be feedback you disagree with and feel is unfounded — I promise you. Also, nobody likes to hear anything negative about themselves, even if constructively (wanting feedback is different to enjoying it).
While ego is bad, we all have it to some degree and there's nothing you can do to get rid of it completely, and its inclination is to defend itself.
The best advice to avoid any urge to get defensive is to respect that person's perspective.
If the feedback doesn't make sense to you, put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge that it does from their point of view. And even if you don't end up taking action on the feedback at the end of the day, at least it gives you insight into what their take on a situation is and where there may be misaligned expectations.
If you don't understand, or disagree, it's okay to ask for clarification or specifics in a respectful way. For instance, you can say something along the lines of;
“I’m having some difficulty with [what you don't understand]. I really appreciate your feedback and really want to work on this. Could you help me with that, and just add a few words around what it is you expect?”.
6. Triage and prioritize feedback.
Once again, like customer feedback, not everything is actionable.
You need to reflect on what you've just learned, and then refine it into practical feedback for yourself.
Focus on the big things from your boss and key stakeholders first, as that's what's most likely to impact you getting promoted.
7. Make a decision and take action.
Now that you know what's most important, make a plan and decision around how you're going to do it.
Think of it as if you were managing your own personal product strategy and roadmap. (1) Here you are today, (2) where do you need to get too, and (3) what are the executables that will get you there.
To give you an example, in my most recent performance review, I got feedback from my boss that I should invest in improving my hard/technical skills around data.
A few of the action items I came up with around that were along the lines of:
Meet with our Senior BI analyst
Get her feedback and advice on how I could better support her work and improve the efficiency of how we work together
Learn our data schema and read our data/BI documentation
Take a well reviewed course that covers SQL and our specific BI tools
Practice what I learn when reviewing our data and creating reports (e.g work towards understanding the underlying SQL queries
Being decisive and taking action is essential. There's nothing more frustrating for your boss than to repeat the same advice over and over again.
8. Follow up on feedback.
After someone shares feedback with you and you've gone through the process of prioritizing and creating next steps for yourself — send a written follow up shortly after to that person.
This is an important step in showing you appreciate their time, heard what they had to say and respect their opinion, and have a plan to make good use of this feedback.
You achieve this by (1) once again thanking them, (2) repeating back to them the main points, and (3) communicating what you're planning on doing to improve.
The more your boss or peers believe you value their feedback and that you’ll make good use of it, the more constructive and positive feedback you will receive going forward. They will also be more patient, appreciative, and supportive of your efforts.
There's another type of important follow up too — communicating progress made to the person down the line. This is very underutilized, but extremely effective.
Using the same example as the point above around the feedback I received from my boss — my plan is to update him after about 3 months on how things are going.
Three reasons why this is a good thing to do:
It keeps me accountable
It reminds him of the feedback he gave (bosses are busy and can forget)
It shows him I took what he said very seriously, and am making active progress.
3 months makes sense here for that specific example — but apply your own judgement for when you should follow up on progress made. Perhaps it's as soon as the next week.
This feedback cycle from your end is a huge signal for your coach-ability.
9. Feedback is about relationship building.
All of the above steps are major contributors to this important point.
It's much easier to get feedback when there is a relationship of high trust.
Invest in building relationships and partnerships with the people you work with. Create familiarity, always have goodwill, and do your job well.
Everything you do as a PM (and in life) is easier when you have good relationships.
If you have any additional advice or thoughts around this, I’d love to hear in the comments below!
I hope you enjoy the rest of your week, and thanks for reading! 🙏
The Product Slice is the free weekly newsletter for PMs and founders about product and startups.
If you’re not as subscriber already, join below. It’s free. 👇
If you enjoy this newsletter, and know someone else who also might, you can share it below👇