Don’t Ask for Feedback Unless You Want It

Winter 2013

Soundings

Don’t Ask for Feedback Unless You Want It

By Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and author of, most recently, Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done. Reprinted from the HBR Blog Network.

Have you ever been asked for feedback—but had the feeling that it wasn’t a genuine request?

Take this example: A friend of mine who works for a large global corporation recently sent a note to her CEO, sharing her views on questions that he raised on his internal blog. The next week she received a call (more of a reprimand) from HR asking why she had emailed the CEO. She responded, “Well, the CEO said, ‘Let me know what you think.’ So I did.” Sure enough, that statement was removed in the CEO’s next blog post.

Although we usually expect better from a CEO, this dynamic of asking for feedback—but not really wanting it—is very common, whether among family members, friends, or colleagues. From my experience, there are two underlying dynamics for this seemingly contradictory behavior: On the one hand, we’ve been taught that feedback is a good thing—we want to hear others’ perspectives since they might help us enrich our thinking. In addition, asking for input is a way of engaging other people and getting them involved. On the other hand, asking for input means that we might have to change plans or do something differently. Change can be difficult and takes time, so we often resist it.

Naturally, this inner conflict is not always conscious. That’s why we might say one thing (“Please give me feedback”) but act as though we don’t really mean it (getting upset with the feedback). In other cases, we consciously make a decision that we don’t want feedback (“The decision is already final”), but feel obligated to ask for it anyway because it’s socially or culturally mandated. Then we can at least check off the box about getting other perspectives, and proceed to do what we wanted anyway.

These behaviors, by the way, are much easier to see in other people than in ourselves. That’s why we shake our heads or laugh at the CEO example because it seems so obviously hypocritical. However we all behave this way at times. For example, I’m frequently guilty of asking colleagues to give me their thoughts on a project plan, knowing full well that I don’t really want to revise it. The end result is that it’s probably harder to convince me to do something different than it should be, and oftentimes colleagues don’t give me their best thinking because they don’t think I will listen.

Clearly these behaviors don’t lead to the most productive or highest-quality outcomes. So to overcome them, here are two guidelines to keep in mind:

Think carefully and consciously about whether you really want feedback, and why. If you truly think that you could benefit from someone else’s thinking, then ask for it. But if you feel confident that what you are doing or thinking is already good enough, then it’s OK not to ask. In other words, don’t ask for input as social convention. Do it only if you mean it.

If you do ask for feedback, be prepared to seriously consider it. That doesn’t mean that you have to do everything that’s suggested, but you should at least listen and think about it. Then give the person who provided the feedback some acknowledgement or thanks for making the effort (and maybe even an explanation of what you’ve done with the input).

Asking for feedback isn’t always easy. But if you’re going to do it, then make sure that you really want it.

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