Stop Asking for Feedback. There is a Better Way.

Indian and caucasian businesswomen negotiating sit at desk in officeOne of the great benefits of mentoring is the opportunity for an independent, customized critique of your performance through friendly yet targeted feedback. Yet therein also lies the problem.

Rather than waiting for feedback, I encourage readers to seek it out, i.e., to pull for feedback. There are times when this evaluation is what you want: a review of your past performance compared to agreed-upon expectations or your peers.

However, most who seek input are more future-focused. That’s the goal after all: to improve your performance going forward. You want comments that will support future professional development, not reflection on what you could have done better in the past.

Asking for advice

The author Daniel Pink recently caught my attention on this point in an episode of his video series The Pinkcast. He said, “Here is how you ask for feedback…don’t! Instead, ask for advice.”

While feedback evaluates past actions, it’s often too vague to be helpful. Additionally, quality feedback must overcome the human barrier of courtesy. Whether it’s written or verbal feedback from peers, supervisors, or your mentor, people are hesitant to give critical feedback and apprehensive about receiving frank assessments.

On the flip side, asking for advice from others can be valuable when specific areas of improvement are shared. Put another way by the Harvard Business School lab of Prof. Ashley Whillans, “Developmental feedback is most useful when it is actionable, containing suggestions of what the recipient should and should not do in the future.”

Advice delivers more value

Harvard Business School scholars have been evaluating and testing the value of asking for advice vs. feedback. One of their studies examined if those asked for input would deliver more “developmental, critical, and actionable comments” when asked for their advice as opposed to their feedback or thoughts.

The researchers asked 612 adults to review a cover letter of medium quality. Each reviewer was randomly assigned to “give the writer your [feedback/advice/thoughts]” using an open-ended format. Then, 624 independent raters assessed the comments based on their developmental nature, criticality, actionability, and usefulness.

The results demonstrated that asking for advice not only produced greater developmental input, but it yielded more suggestions and comments that were rated as useful, including critical critiques. This reaffirmed previous studies that found those who provide advice share more on what the recipients should do rather than what they did do.

Additional studies by the researchers produced similar conclusions: The future-focused input from asking for advice was overall greater in quantity and quality than asking for feedback.

Additional considerations

People responding to a request for feedback are almost automatically assigned diverging roles. When someone seeks your advice, it can be seen as flattering and even boost your impression of their performance. However, when someone seeks your feedback, it demands analysis and critique, which is often couched in vague reflections instead of constructive criticism.

One final caveat to consider is that not all requests for input are based on a developmental progress goal. Sometimes the ask is merely a seeking of encouragement. Coaches and teachers have the difficult job of transitioning between these modes appropriately to boost the overall learning experience.

As Farnam Street Media founder Shane Parrish puts it, “Asking for feedback creates a critic. Asking for advice creates a partner.”

Shane Parrish tweet

So, the next time you’re ready to pull feedback advice from your coworker, boss, or mentor, pause to consider how you frame the request. It will have a significant impact on what you get in return.

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