You know what feedback is because once a year or so your boss will invite you into the office to discuss how things are going. When you move to industry, if that’s your intent, you’ll find that the word—feedback—has become the worst kind of business jargon, completely overused. That's OK; the jargon may be insipid, but the concept is essential.
Feedback facilitates course correction, and industry people use it constantly to stay on track. While it’s possible in academia to steer by your internal compass without feedback at all, no successful industry employee goes a month without it. In its absence, it’s too easy to stray off course and end up somewhere you hadn’t intended. The scientist on a project team relies on the project manager to keep him updated with regular feedback on how his efforts complement the team’s efforts, while the CEO relies on the board of directors to provide feedback so that she can steer the organization to profitability. There are similar examples for every industry role.
If you don’t ask . . .
Despite its value, some people are uncomfortable with feedback. It’s not always delivered well—and it can hurt, especially when it comes from an inept boss who doesn't know how to manage people. But even in that case, there’s a nugget inside that commentary that we can use to fine-tune or at least learn something about the relationship with the person offering feedback, who usually is important, to us at least.
I think it’s a mistake to wait for feedback to be delivered on someone else’s terms. You’ve probably had that sinking feeling when your research adviser calls you into her office unexpectedly and says, “It’s time for some feedback.” Wouldn’t you rather just ask for it—learn something, make the course correction—and avoid that unpleasant experience in the future?
There are two distinct scenarios for feedback, and both require you to reach out to people. The first is the work-related feedback you need for doing your job. The second is feedback from job interviews. The latter is more elusive, but it's oh so worthwhile when you land it.
How to ask for (and receive) feedback
I thought about feedback recently when I began to notice something that didn't seem right in my relationship with Bill, a new client. Bill had become increasingly quiet in our conversations about candidates for his open position. I knew that if I asked, “Bill, is something wrong? You don’t seem all that friendly when I call,” I probably wouldn't get a useful response. The trick is to ask in such a way that the question seems professional and routine, not personal or loaded with implied significance. So instead I asked, “Bill, I think it’s important shortly into a project like this to check in and see how we are doing. In your opinion, what could we do differently?”
That was all it took. Bill had signed our agreement without noticing a piece of fine print. I listened and learned that he (and some of our other clients) perceived that clause as unfair. My relationship with him was important, so I adjusted the contract to his satisfaction. Things are back on track, and I got valuable advice that will help me do my job better in the future.
At least as important as how you ask for feedback is how you take what's offered in response. In his new book, Trajectory: 7 Career Strategies to Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, David L. Van Rooy cautions his readers not to let work-related feedback turn into a “you versus them” exercise. “Your reaction is critical. Do not rationalize the feedback or explain it away. Don’t blame others or get angry. If you react in any of those ways, you are less apt to get accurate feedback from that person again,” Van Rooy cautions. “All too often, people let feedback that is given with positive intentions spiral into a negative situation by reacting destructively.” Just set aside your ego and listen.
Feedback Scenario 1: the workplace
In the workplace, the secret to feedback is to make it as routine as possible. Frequent, small course corrections are far better than a few large ones; just ask any racecar driver. So, do what you can to make it routine. Seek feedback often, especially from your boss. The only caveat is that you don't want to go so far that you start to seem needy. Feedback is important, but you need to be able to function on your own.
Don't limit your queries to your boss. In his book, Van Rooy writes, “Some of the best and most insightful feedback will come from colleagues. These are the people who get to see and interact with you the most.” Your fellow postdocs or graduate students will notice potential problems developing. They know you, your boss, and the workplace dynamic, so it’s likely that their feedback will be especially useful.
Also recognize that not all feedback is explicit. Sometimes you can learn valuable things about your performance by observing the behavior of people around you. When you give a talk in your journal club, watch the faces in the audience and see if they are drifting. In meetings, pay attention to how people respond to your suggestions: Do they seem relaxed? Anxious? If you routinely interact with a public—with people outside your lab—they, too, can offer implicit clues to how you're doing, just as Bill did for me in the example above.
Feedback scenario 2: the job interview
Following a job interview, you have two opportunities to secure feedback, one during the interview and the other after the fact.
Getting feedback during the interview is tricky: Some interviewers won’t want to show their hand; others may not have formulated an opinion yet. But if you can get feedback, it's valuable, so it’s worth going for, and at the very least you can sow a seed that you can reap later if the interview doesn't result in a job offer.
There’s usually a moment right at the end of the day when you are alone with the person who invited you. This might be your networking contact or, perhaps, the prospective boss. At that time, it’s possible to ask, “Susan, I’m impressed by the company and by the people I’ve met. I’d like an opportunity to work here. Is there anything more you need to know about me, or any reason you can see that I wouldn’t be a candidate going forward? If so, I'd like an opportunity to address it.” Not everyone will love this approach; some may find it pushy. But I love it. It reinforces your interest in the post while making you seem purposeful, determined, and open to feedback.
The other approach is to wait until their decision is made. If you learn that you're not going to get the offer, follow up with an e-mail to your interviewer, and set up a time to talk. Ask if they’d be kind enough to share a few comments that could help you improve your interviewing skills. You won’t always get a response, but—again—it’s still worth the effort. As a contract recruiter, I can guarantee you that recruiters will always give you feedback. Our code of ethics requires it.
When someone responds that you could have done a better job of fine-tuning your job talk for the audience, ask a clarifying question. “How would you suggest that I present this subject in the future?” When they tell you that you didn’t have the required level of experience, ask, “What experience should I add that would make my resume more appealing?” Be sure to make it clear that you're not contesting their hiring decision or challenging their opinion of your performance; you're merely seeking feedback that can help you in the future.
The last bit of feedback offered is often the most important
There’s an odd method to the way that many people deliver feedback, and I think it’s worth noting here. When asked to provide feedback, many people will start with minor issues. They tend to save the serious details—the real roadblocks to your success—for last.
For example, after a job interview, if you request it, a hiring manager may give you a few tips but will usually close with the real deal-killer, throwing it out as if it were not all that important. So listen carefully all the way to the end.
Rotator Image: CREDIT: Kelly B. on Flickr, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license