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How to Turn Feedback into Something You Can Act On

Hopefully you’re out there asking for and getting feedback regularly. That’s great! Now, if you’re getting a lot of feedback, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t all be high quality, actionable stuff. We’ve said before, “Don’t criticize the criticism,” and we’ve talked about what to do if you disagree with the feedback. But what about feedback that you’re not sure what it means, or how to act on? What do you do with that?

We recently got this question from one of our podcast listeners:

When your boss tells you during your performance review that you need to develop a sense of urgency (as I was recently told) what kind of suggestions would you have for the employee

Let me tell you what I would do if I got this specific feedback, and hopefully you can apply these steps to your own situation, whatever the hard-to-understand feedback is.

Ok, so the boss told me “you need to develop a sense of urgency.” Huh. A sense of urgency. Does that mean the boss doesn’t think I work hard enough? That I don’t put in enough hours? If that’s the case, then maybe what the boss wants me to do is spend more time at the office.

The thing is, it’s very hard to know if that is in fact what the boss wants, based on the “sense of urgency” feedback. So step 1 is to try to unpack the actual shortcoming that my boss is seeing.

Ask the person to say more

Of course, I’m not a mind-reader (and you probably aren’t either), so I can’t assume really anything about what the boss means. The first order of business is to ask my boss, “Can you say more?” In doing this, I want to manifest as curious and not defensive. The open question is a good way to encourage the other person to continue talking, without responding or making it more difficult for them by, say, asking for examples.

While my boss responds, I’ll take notes and really try to understand her view. My goal is to try to elucidate everything in the boss’ head around my “lack of a sense of urgency.”

This feedback can mean soooooooooooo many things, and I shouldn’t guess, so I’m going to make it a priority to really understand what the boss thinks here.

Figure out what success looks like

We say all the time that repeating success is easier than fixing problems. In this case, I haven’t had success, but I can still try to understand what it looks like so that it’s easier to achieve. So step 2 is to try to understand what would signal to my boss that I have the proper sense of urgency.

One way I might do this is by asking my boss, “Who here has an appropriate sense of urgency? I’d like to think of them as a possible model.”

Or I might ask, “In your mind, what does a perfect sense of urgency look like?”

With either of these options, I can hopefully tease out some of the behaviors or specific work products that my boss wants to see from me.

Tie it back to your objectives

Once I have a better understanding of my boss’ perspective and what she’s looking for, I’m going to think a little bit more about the root cause of this feedback, and how I can show progress towards it in the future. I’ll leave the conversation and spend some time on my own thinking about this feedback, and I’ll take the additional step of thinking about the feedback in the context of my objectives.

Let’s say I had been pursuing clear, measurable goals, rooted in clear team priorities every week/month/quarter. If I were missing the deadlines for my goals, then “lacking a sense of urgency” might be a good root cause analysis. Maybe this is what led my boss to give this particular feedback. So I would come back to my boss and ask, “I missed some deadlines this quarter. Would you say that’s a key area where I needed more of a sense of urgency?”

On the other hand, oftentimes non-specific feedback like this manifests in situations where there are not clear objectives and timing for those objectives. This could mean that the objectives didn’t exist, or that the other person was not on the same page with respect to those objectives.

If the goals didn’t exist, I would now push to have individual and team goals, something to clearly measure my “sense of urgency” against in the future. If there were goals, but varying ideas about priority, timelines, etc., could any of that lack of clarity have been the root of my “lacking a sense of urgency”? Maybe I can think of some ways I could have behaved differently to better show a sense of urgency, and I would run those ideas by my boss.

I think it can be extremely helpful to do this thinking and then continue the conversation with the person who gave you the feedback. You’ll be able to double check your analysis and set yourself up to show progress in this area in the future.

———

Hopefully these three steps can help you turn any feedback into something you can act on and improve as a result of. How do they work for non-specific feedback you’ve received? Send us your examples in the comments, and we’ll try to help customize for your situation.

Tips to Avoid Manipulatively Insincere Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Manipulatively Insincere, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize kindly and clearly

Just say what you really think. It’s not mean if it’s clear enough. If others have rated your criticism as Manipulatively Insincere, you’re not showing you care or challenging them directly enough. It’s hard to break free from the “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” advice that was pounded into your head since you learned to talk. But now it’s not just your job to say it — it’s your moral obligation.

Don’t triangulate

If you have criticism for somebody, it’s helpful to tell the person directly, but really unhelpful to talk about the problem with others.

People almost always know what you think even if you don’t say it

When you are thinking one thing and saying another, it’s not kind, it’s confusing, and it erodes trust.

Unspoken criticism doesn’t age well

It sours over time. Remember that ex who’d bring up small things you did wrong six months ago? You don’t want to be THAT person.

Just say it, in person

It can feel risky to tell somebody what you think right to their face. But, saying in person “I think this is screwed up, and here are some ideas for how to fix it” is FAR safer than saying nothing and thinking, “you’re screwed up.” Be humble (“I think”) and focus on specifics, not attributes (“this,” not “you”), and be ready with ideas to help. Then, it’s not so risky.

Don’t “back-stab!”

Criticizing a person behind their back is much the same thing as using a bullhorn and doing it publicly, only worse. It’ll get back to them, and it will earn you the reputation for back-stabbing.

Focus on specifics not attributes

When people screw up, it doesn’t mean they are morons. It just means they screwed up. But when you think, “What a moron,” you are falling prey to the fundamental attribution error. If you are very clear about what went wrong, you’re more likely to be able to verbalize what’s bothering you in a way that is kind.

Tips to Avoid Ruinously Empathetic Criticism

If you think you’ve given criticism that was Ruinously Empathetic, check out these tips for moving towards Radical Candor!

Criticize clearly

Don’t try to spare people’s feelings by leaving out the details — that is not nice, it’s just unclear. If others have rated your criticism as Ruinously Empathetic, you’re not Challenging Directly enough. Try clearly explaining what you think directly to them.

Just say it!

When you don’t say it, you rob the person of a chance to fix what’s wrong, or to push back and convince you that actually YOU are wrong. Not saying it is unclear and unhelpful.

Criticism is not arrogant

When you challenge somebody, you expect them to challenge you back. When you say, I think that’s wrong, you give them a chance to prove to you that it’s actually right. If somebody disagrees with your criticism, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Criticism has a short half life

Just say it right away. The longer you wait, the less clear you are because you remember fewer details about what actually happened.

Criticize IN PERSON

Don’t hide behind email or chat to avoid negative emotions. If somebody gets upset and starts to cry, it’s hard but it’s not the end of the world. Neither of you is water-soluble. If the person yells, it won’t kill you; if the person gets defensive, the fact you’ve already proven that you care will help you get through.

Criticize in private, debate in public

You would never criticize a person in public, and that’s a good thing. But you probably could do a little more disagreeing and debating in public.

Remember that telling people when something is wrong is not a personal attack

In fact, not telling somebody when they have spinach in their teeth is actually like saying: “You are not even capable of removing spinach from your teeth, so I won’t bother telling you it’s there.” When you are clear about something that is wrong, it is a gift, an act of kindness.

Tips for Radically Candid Criticism

Giving criticism is hard! Check out these tips for offering Radical Candor:

About CriticismRadically Candid criticism is kind and clear

Easy to say, hard to do. Being kind means caring about what’s best for the person long term, not just what feels easiest right now. Being clear means leaving no room for interpretation about what you really think — while also being open to the possibility that your opinion is wrong.

Be helpful

When you are really clear about what’s wrong and why, you help the person fix the problem. Offer criticism in a spirit of helpfulness, even if you don’t have actual help to offer.

Be humble

Your ego is in check; you are always open to learning that what you think is dead wrong. You’re not just open to being wrong, you’re happy to be proven wrong. What you care about is helping others do the best work of their careers, and getting to the best answer.

Give criticism immediately

If somebody makes a mistake, you tell them right away. That’s more kind because pointing it out right away gives the person an opportunity to fix it faster, and it’s more clear because the details are fresh.

Deliver criticism in person

Remember, Radical Candor gets measured at the listener’s ear, not the talker’s mouth. Since 90% of communication is non verbal, it’s really hard to know if your criticism is Radically Candid — or not — if you can’t see how it lands. The only way to know if you’ve been kind and clear is to see how the other person is reacting.

Give criticism in private

Debates can happen in public, but if you’re criticizing a person, it’s much kinder to do it in private. It will also be more clear, because private criticism is much less likely to trigger a person’s defense mechanisms.

It’s not about personality

It’s saying, “I don’t think that’s true,” rather than, “You’re a liar!” People can’t alter their personality, so saying things like “You’re a jerk” or “You are sloppy” is neither kind nor helpful. And it’s almost always a flawed analysis of the situation.

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