Feedback is a gift; should you ask for it?

G-7 meeting

It’s rare to find someone who is insightful about you and your business … and rarer to find someone confident enough in their relationship with you to give you honest feedback.  I treasure these people, and have paid a coach to do this for me personally.

When you’re meeting with your board, I strongly recommend you ask explicitly for feedback.  That opens the door for board members who may not feel comfortable giving honest feedback to do their fiduciary duty and give that feedback.

Even when you’re meeting with a subordinate for performance review purposes, I also recommend asking the subordinate for feedback.  That’s what I do.  Among the people who know you best are your subordinates.  Of course, they can understandably be a bit hesitant to give honest feedback, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask.  Whatever they say, you’ll learn.  If they don’t give you any feedback, either you’re perfect (unlikely…) or haven’t established enough of a trusting relationship for the subordinate to feel comfortable being direct with you.

Clients are a more complex matter.  My historic bias was to ask clients for feedback as frequently as socially acceptable.  Whether you just won a renewed client, or you just lost a key client, it’s critical to learn from the people whose opinion matters the most.

That said, I recently had a conversation with a colleague, who brought up a very different perspective for situations in which you are asking for explanation of a “No” answer from a person with whom you have a minimal personal trust relationship.  An example: some of the potential limited partners with whom we periodically talk.

He argued three reasons why you should not ask for feedback in these situations:

1)  You won’t get the truth, so it’s a waste of time.  It’s the old “it’s not you, it’s me” line that anyone who has ever dated is all too familiar with. People, especially those with whom you don’t have a prior relationship, are under no obligation to tell you why they won’t buy your product. Some may just want to be left alone and not put on the spot.  If you do get a response from one of these people, it will likely skirt around the truth. Because of the unavoidable personal element involved, giving honest, negative feedback can make people feel awkward, and no one enjoys that.

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2)  Forcing them to answer solidifies a negative view of you.  The decision to reject may have been made with a relatively superficial analysis.  By imposing upon them to articulate the reasons, you force them to summarize all of your shortcomings, when they may not have fully done so internally.

3)  You made the person uncomfortable and forced them to articulate your weaknesses when they would not otherwise have done so; this can reduce your odds of a future successful conversation.  If you take a polite “no” at face value and move along, that doesn’t necessarily close the door for future conversations when circumstances change. If you have already made the client feel uncomfortable and solidify their negative memories of you, you may have needlessly lowered your odds for future success.

This is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree.  What do you think?

Photo: G-7 meeting (Photo credit: Wikipedia) .

Cross-posted in Forbes

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