Feedback Without Fear

Feb. 19, 2019
Why wait for an unsoliticted critique when you can solicit constructive criticism yourself?

This past weekend I played a gig at my local pub, the PaperMill Creek Saloon, here in Lagunitas, Calif. Believe me, if you knew how rough and motley we are, you’d know I’m not bragging.

After we had finished I was chatting with a guy at the bar and said it had been a fun show but a real shame more people weren’t there to hear us  play. It had been a fairly sparse crowd. He said, “Come outside with me for a minute where we can talk.”

I followed him out, wondering what he might be about to say. Was he in the music business? Did he have some promotion ideas? Were we that dreadful?

It was raining so it was a bit uncomfortable to talk with the cold drops tapping on my thinning head. First, he was very complimentary about our band and how he had enjoyed coming down to see us. Then he said he was looking forward to some faster songs later in our set. He was a little disappointed that we never kicked things up a notch. I thought he had a great point, so I made a mental note to discuss our song choice with my pals. I thanked him sincerely and wished him goodnight as he walked around the puddles to his car.

On Monday evening I got a call. “It’s James, we spoke on Saturday night after your show.” He had never called me before. He said he wanted to apologize for what he had said to me. “You guys are really great, I should never have said those things…."

I was surprised and reassured him that I hadn’t been offended, quite the opposite, actually. I then went on to explain that I am in the feedback business myself as an executive coach gathering insights for clients, and as a co-founder of a real-time feedback application designed to promote learning.

I share this story because it shows the sensitivity and anxiety we all feel around giving and getting feedback. Poor James felt compelled to call me up and apologize for doing something he thought was inappropriate and probably offensive. While he felt regret after offering an unsolicited suggestion, I really wanted to know about our performance, what the audience liked and what we might do to up our game next time.

Feedback from customers is immensely valuable for the development of products and services, which is why we are constantly bombarded by annoying surveys asking for just a few minutes of our time. But we very rarely seek feedback about ourselves.

Imagine for a minute that you could push a feedback button and instantly learn how people perceive you, and any ideas they might have for how you could be more effective. Would you push that button? I know our band would push it.

The fact is that learning always comes with an emotional cost. When I sat down with my guitar teacher a couple of months ago, I was both super excited to learn, and super embarrassed by my inadequacies. But the psychology of the exchange changes when people request feedback.

I asked James if he would have felt differently if I had approached him at the bar and asked him to step outside for a few minutes to give me some feedback on the show. I asked if he would still be calling me to apologize. “Absolutely not,” was his reply “The precise reason that I felt a need to call you was because my feedback was unsolicited.”

So, knowing that others will feel fine providing valuable insights, if you ask for it, are you ready to push the feedback button? It takes some courage and vulnerability, but try reaching out to a few colleagues. Ask them what you could be doing better, then listen to what they have to say. You could learn how to kick things up a notch.

Based in the San Francisco Bay area, Chris Morgan is founding principal of Morgan Alexander, a consulting firm that coaches senior management teams to lead winning organizations, and co-founder of ListenTool. He is one of a few executive coaches with more than 20 years of experience, having started with The Alexander Corporation. Morgan’s clients are primarily CXO engagements with Fortune 500 companies, and high-tech startups in the San Francisco Bay area.

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