Don't Ask for Feedback, Ask for Advice

Everyone wants feedback. In fact, studies show employees who get regular feedback are more engaged and higher performing. The problem is, unless you have a strong trusting relationship with a person you are asking, you may not the concrete feedback you are looking for. People don’t want to hurt others’ feelings and so they avoid giving it, they sugar coat it, or give you the feedback sandwich.

It gets even more complicated where there’s a power dynamic. As a manager, it’s typically easier to give feedback downward. But what if you truly want to know what your reports think of you? You could try sending a survey to your team like Google does for their managers. But personal, private feedback can be more concrete. It’s easy enough to ask your employees “do you have any feedback for me?” The problem is, they most likely won’t tell you exactly what’s on their mind. Because if they do, they may feel they could be retaliated against, especially if they are directly working for you.

So how can you get that feedback? Fortunately there’s a simple word switch that immediately helps:

Don’t ask for feedback, ask for advice.

Why does the word “advice” work when “feedback” doesn’t?

A manager I’ve had in the past was struggling with a situation he was dealing with. We had a good open and trusting relationship, so it was clear he wanted some help from me. As he was providing context for his situation, I could feel the ask for feedback coming. I quickly started working through my head good ways of giving my thoughts while not being too offensive. I wish I didn’t, but again the power dynamic is there and it’s strong. But when he came to his question, he framed it differently. “Do you have any advice on what I could do?”.

The word “feedback” is more about the asker, “I need you to help me”. It’s focused on just one person and a bit self-serving.

The word “advice” is more about the askee, “You are really good at this stuff, better than me. I want to know what you would do in this situation.” It’s a powerful way of making the person feel really good and naturally they would want to provide their perhaps expert opinion.

Feedback advocate Kim Scott with her philosophy, Radical Candor similarly notes the negative connotation: “the word feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears”. (She instead likes to refer feedback as guidance).

The great part of using the word “advice” is that you can frame your question to really anyone: your reports, your peers, your manager. It’s flattering and immediately encourages them to open up. This practice also helps foster a culture of psychological safety, encouraging your team to further open up to you and others on their own. Give it a try!

High-performing employees = High-performing team = High-performing manager.

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