Why it’s important to ask for feedback

“Do you think that’s air you are breathing now?” – Morpheus, The Matrix

I can think of no better way to open this post than quoting a great movie that describes the extreme effects of being caught in our own reality. #PerceptionIsReality

Why is it? In my book, Office of Cards, I go in depth through habits, how they form and how to change them, and the relationship between the limbic system and unconscious biases, but here I’ll just mention that the human brain is optimised by millennia of evolution to minimise energy consumption, therefore it tends to develop biases, pre-concepts, judgement on situations, always trying to reduce something unknown to the closest known thing it can compare it to. A known situation does not require a lot of thinking compared to an unknown one (think about a restaurant situation: if you are Italian and go to an Italian restaurant it would take much less time to decide what to eat compared to a restaurant with a cuisine you are not familiar with, where probably you need to ask the waiter to help you understand what each dish is made with).
This time in my life is particularly interesting as I am observing my 9 month old daughter learn the most basic things, and it’s fascinating to see how an “empty” brain works. For instance, when I give her a rattle she wants to hear the noise it makes. What does she do? She moves her arm, keeping it straight, up and down very fast and that makes a lot of noise! What is great is that she can associate the movement with the noise and so she achieves her goal by making that movement.
What is not great is that any movement would accomplish the same result but because she knows that movement makes the sound she does not try any other movement. So, her capacity to achieve her goal in one way prevents her from finding other ways to achieve the same goal. You may wonder: what’s the deal? She achieves the goal which is what matters, so there’s no problem. Well, there is no problem if her way was the best, but how can she know if she does not try other ways?

This is why I insist on keeping an open mind on what we do and challenge ourselves to try and look at everything we do with critical eyes, questioning our assumptions and making sure we always look for better ways to do things.

If you want a sport metaphor, look at what Dick Fosbury did to high jump in Mexico 1980 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fosbury_Flop). Changed the discipline forever.
If you are more into the science examples, perhaps reading Albert Einstein’s bio by Walter Isaacson is a good idea, the way he describes how one of the greatest minds of our time came to consider the idea of relativity in 1905 is truly fascinating, I am sure they’ll make a movie at some point.
Same goes for all those we call “visionaries”. In most cases, all they did was look at a problem everyone saw, but from a different point of view.

Now, what does this have to do with feedback? It’s very simple: asking for a feedback is the best possible way to develop objective views of ourselves, identify our flaws, reflect on the impact we have on the people around us, and adjust our aim to make sure what we say and do is indeed helping us achieve our goals. #GoOneLevelDeeper #FillTheGap
A friend, a boss, a coach, a parent… anyone who knows you is good to ask for feedback because they will surely have an opinion about you! And most of them will gladly share it with you, if you ask for it in the right way. #GetHelp

To put it in layman terms: asking for feedback is necessary to make sure we develop objective views on things, on what we do, on what we say, and on who we are.

Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates (one of the largest investment firms in the world) and author of the great book Principles, conceived a tool called Dot Collector, which is used regularly in his company to help people improve and learn from mistakes. It works in a simple way: every time anyone has an interaction with someone else at work (a meeting, a presentation…) everyone can write comments about how they see or feel about what this person is saying or doing, and this person will have access to this goldmine of content. It surely can be hard to digest at first, and quite frankly for some it would be too much to take in, but if you have an open mind this is amazing. Imagine going to a meeting with 10 people presenting your idea/plan/project and everyone of them writes notes and comments not only on what you say, but also on how you say it: “when you made the point about cost savings the project would have driven, you looked insecure”, “the executive summary was too long”, “you were talking fast and it was hard to follow you”. This is amazing for several reasons:
1- People can write freely and in the moment, which means their comment will be fact-based and as contextualised as possible (the longer you wait after the fact, the more the recollection can become distorted)
2- During a meeting with many people, nobody would ever make a comment about your presentation style, it would be rude and compromise your (or their) credibility. Writing a note you have access to when the meeting is over is, on the other hand, very useful and everyone can do it
3- This attitude makes everyone responsible for everyone’s growth and success, which in my opinion also contributes to creating and fostering esprit du corps, which is often a key element to the success of a company.

I really suggest you check the book out, it’s full of gems like this, and also other books I recommend on officeofcards.com/books. What I want to stress here is: Ray Dalio created a tool (and mandated its use in his company) to make sure feedback was a central part of the daily life at Bridgewater. Think about the time it takes, think also about the awkward situations it can generate… and yet, these potential negatives are vastly offset by the positive contribution that a feedback can provide to someone’s growth.

There are two caveats though:
1. You need to make sure you weigh what you hear based on what you know about the other person.
We have seen that you have biases and so you are asking for feedback to develop an objective view about something, but other people have biases too, about themselves, about you and about life in general so they will tell you things based on what they believe in, which may or may not be the same for you. This is why you need to collect several opinions to develop a truly objective 360 degrees view of yourself. A very recent example: a friend told me I am being a bit spammy on social media recently. First of all, kudos to him for prompting the issue without being asked and have the courage of saying something that might have upset me. Feedback is always welcome! Second: what did I do? I took that feedback, and asked other friends what they thought. This allowed me to develop a balanced view about the problem and think about a solution: it turns out that not everyone thought I was spammy, but my friend was not alone in thinking that I was, so I will try to time and space my posts a bit more, to be respectful of people’s time. My goal is for this content to help people, and for this to happen I need 3 things: people need to read it (and if I am perceived as spammy I am reducing my chances), they need to like it and they need to share it. The clarity I have on my goal and the openness I have to the feedback I received will possibly help me achieve my goal a little better, which is awesome.

2. You need to keep an open mind and react positively if you hear something you did not expect.
The last thing you want to do is to start an argument because you disagree with a feedback you were given. Feedback is great if you take it graciously, thank the person who took time to give it to you and who risked upsetting you by telling you something they knew might have led to an argument. If you ask for feedback to someone who is not willing to tell you the hard truths, then you are probably missing out because “you’re great” is not a feedback you can work on.
In the example above, most of the people I know would have not reacted well to the feedback, especially because it was unsolicited, would probably have ignored it or maybe even complained about it with the person giving it (which would have probably meant this person would no longer give any feedback).

The other beautiful thing of asking for feedback is the process, in that you have to have a dialogue about it.
This discussion, the feedback session, is a blessing because by talking about what you do and why you do it you are forcing a process of self-evaluation which, in itself, will make you see things in a different way.
Several notable people, Tim Ferriss to name one, insist that journaling (https://tim.blog/2015/01/15/morning-pages/) is a practice they could never live without as it helps them clear their minds and reduce stress by giving structure to their thoughts. Basically, I believe the feedback conversation achieves the same goal, with the added benefit of having someone else’s point of view to consider.
Back to the example about Albert Einstein’s relativity theory, he attributed significant credit to several “walking chats” (he loved hiking) with Michele Besso. The Swiss/Italian engineer, one of Einstein’s closest friends, was a sounding board for Einstein’s ideas and, probably by asking the right questions and by providing meaningful comments, helped shape the idea that revolutionised physics as we had known it till then.

A feedback applies to everything, it could be about you, a behaviour, a dish you cooked, an idea you have, something you did or planned on doing… it does not matter, any feedback will make that idea, plan or dish, better if you have the courage to ask for a second (and a third…) opinion, have an open mind about what you are going to hear and have the structured approach to weigh what people tell you.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking your opinion is the only one that matters, it may be true, but the only way to know is to… ask someone else and prove them wrong.

I heard this quote from Ray Dalio in his interview with Tim Ferriss that made me chuckle, and think “Just because you have an opinion, it doesn’t mean it matters”. Standing ovation!

In summary:
* Feedback is a gift, treat it as such: you want a lot of those, you cherish them, you thank people who give them to you and, when you see the value that you were given, you may want to give something back (remember to #BeAGiver when you can)
* Having an open mind is key to make the process useful, and even pleasant.
* Feedback can be painful, but it’s the same pain of going to the gym, you may not like it but you will surely like the effects of it, which is why you go to the gym in the first place.

I wish this article will help you consider the power that can come from having objective views on things.
I was so full of myself when I was younger, thought I knew it all and everyone’s opinion was less important than mine… guess what: my career accelerated significantly when I changed my approach and started listening (and acting on) the feedback that I was so blessed to receive.

Thanks for reading, as always. If you have comments or… feedback 🙂 please share on social media!

D