Ask a Project Manager #10: How Do I Get Good Constructive Feedback?

Published

August 23, 2021

Author

Abby Fretz

Illustrator

Receiving feedback from work peers can be a powerful tool for self improvement but getting the constructive kind is no easy feat – it can be risky business too! It's all about sussing out the culture, setting boundaries, asking excellent questions, and more. In this next instalment of Ask a Project Manager, Abby shares her expertise on how to source the kind of crit that will encourage you to flourish.

Dear Abby,

How do I get good constructive feedback from peers on my project management skills? What are some questions that you recommend asking to get helpful responses?

Yours, 

Crit Seeker

Dear Crit Seeker,

As PM’s and team leads we are accustomed to teaching our stakeholders and teammates how to give and ask for useful feedback. And while this can be a very challenging set of principles to teach, it can be even more challenging to embody those principles when seeking out and receiving feedback on your own skills and performance. We are more accustomed to giving and receiving feedback on deliverables (content, design, code) than we are on our own performance. Kudos to you for exploring this powerful tool for our own continuous improvement!

Evaluating your company’s feedback culture

Before you begin laying out a plan for the best questions to ask or for how you will use the feedback you receive, you will first want to evaluate how your organization supports (or doesn’t!) a culture of transparent, supportive peer review and feedback.  Great, supportive, human-first companies with healthy teams will have invested in establishing a practice of setting company, team, and personal goals and working towards those goals through continuous improvement. 

Healthy companies will:

  • Establish and communicate clear company, team, and personal goals (and a path to accomplishing those goals)

  • Build and consistently follow a schedule of regular check-ins and reviews between team leads and each team member

  • Set clear expectations about how each person’s performance will be evaluated and when they can expect  to have conversations about their role and salary.

  • Actively work to establish a culture of psychological safety in which giving and receiving feedback is viewed as a mechanism for improvement and not something to be dreaded or used punitively

If you recognize your company in the above description, congratulations! You have found an excellent workplace environment!  Your experience requesting feedback will likely be significantly more straightforward (receiving feedback may be a different story, but we’ll talk about that later). If the above criteria are not true for your team, there are some steps you can take to help set expectations and equip your team with the tools they will need to give great feedback. 

No surprises

Imagine being the leader of a fire brigade and in the middle of you and your team fighting an intense blaze, you pause and ask your fellow firefighters, “How am I doing? What could I improve? Do you enjoy working with me?”  Odd timing right? Do you imagine you got excellent,  constructive feedback or did they look at you, confused and questioning your intent?

Even on teams who do not have the advantage of trust or psychological safety, simply knowing what to expect will put them in a better mindset to give their peers meaningful feedback. It takes a large dose of vulnerability to give feedback to a peer or leader!  To start eliminating hesitancy or fear of teammates around giving feedback you could: 

  • Write a description on why feedback on performance is important and how you will use the feedback you are receiving. Bonus –- if you have not thought about how you will process the feedback you receive, this writing exercise will help YOU as well!

  • Give specific examples of the types of feedback that is helpful and examples of feedback that is damaging or hard to act on. If you are in a leadership position or have been asked for peer review, you can model both the delivery of and type of helpful feedback you seek from your teammates.

  • Set a regular check-in with the people you are seeking feedback from

  • Model transparency and vulnerability (the same things you are asking from your teammates) by sharing some of your professional goals and which areas of growth you are currently most focused on

Check in with yourself

As a project manager you are likely a pro at supporting your team in parsing feedback they receive, getting clarity on poorly worded feedback, and perhaps most importantly preparing responses to challenging or unexpected feedback.

In the same way you take the time to craft your responses to difficult stakeholder feedback, give yourself the benefit of practicing your responses to challenging professional feedback. Practice writing and delivering your own scripts for tough conversations! Like we say in “The Pillars of PM”, “We’re not born knowing what to say to stakeholders or how to handle difficult conversations, but we can learn scripts that automate that self-doubt/confusion.”

As a project manager you’ve likely had the experience of working with a teammate or stakeholder you were reluctant to disagree with, maybe because they were defensive or combative.  Think about how you felt in those circumstances.  How will you prepare yourself for the more challenging aspects of receiving feedback?

Set aside some time to consider the following questions and write down your responses:

  • If I receive an unexpected piece of feedback I feel really good about, how will I respond? 

  • If I receive an unexpected piece of feedback that feels awful (maybe I thought I was excelling in something they thought needed improvement), how will I respond? 

  • How, in my responses, can I demonstrate my openness to considering their point of view?

  • If I disagree with feedback I receive, how will I evaluate the type of response I want to give? Will I explain my point of view? Will I ask for further clarification? Will I simply thank them and move on?  Think about the impact and risk of each type of response.  This is a bit of a “choose your own adventure” exercise. There will be pro’s, cons, and different outcomes for each response you choose!

Setting boundaries

It is important to recognize that in talking about vulnerability, transparency, and psychological safety, we need to also address the importance of setting boundaries. Ask almost anyone whether they have felt personal and professional boundaries tested in the workplace and the answer will likely be yes.  

Requesting, giving and receiving performance-based feedback has the potential to challenge all of our personal and professional communication boundaries. What kind of feedback would you be unwilling to receive or see someone else receive? How would you articulate that to your team? What kind of feedback might do more harm than good? What kind of feedback would you and your team consider inappropriate or damaging? 

Several years ago, the team at Louder Than Ten implemented an exercise internally that we now encourage our students to run with their teams. Each of us filled out a personal operating manual that described our preferred methods for communication, when we did our best work, what we needed to succeed, and gave us an opportunity to articulate the boundaries that were important to us in our communication. I am more confident knowing I can support my teammates and will be supported in communicating in a way that meets our needs and boundaries.

Authentic curiosity

Modeling is an excellent way to support the kind of giving and receiving of feedback you’d like the team to practice. Your teammates will be able to read how open you are to receiving feedback. Practice expressing genuine curiosity in their responses. If you aren’t interested the process or your team’s input, your opportunity to get valuable feedback is over before you’ve even begun.

Designing excellent questions

Your team is now prepared to confidentiality give and receive feedback. You have practiced receiving feedback and having challenging conversations. There is one thing left for you to do Crit Seeker, don’t think I forgot the second part of your question!). What questions should you be asking to get the feedback that will provide you with the most value as a project manager on the quest for continuous improvement?

As a team leader, educator, and coach I am on a personal quest to become an expert “asker of questions”! Asking a great question is an art form and a very powerful tool. The right question will guide people in self-discovery, thoughtful reflection, and will generate value for both the questioner and the question-ee.

General vs. targeted questions

Broad, general questions will likely generate general responses. It is far harder to respond to “How am I doing?” or “What can I improve on” than it is to respond to “How can I support the team better in managing our stakeholder’s expectations?” Particularly in an environment in which teams are still working on building trust, an open-ended general question can even feel like a trap. 

Some examples of targeted questions formatted to generate reflection:

  • How could I support [team or role] better in [activity or phase]?

  • Are there phases of the project you would like me to be more / differently / less involved?

  • In my role as a PM, are there ways I could provide stronger allyship for [team/role]? 

  • On [project name] at what points do you think I could have done a better job anticipating risk?

  • What am I not seeing [on the team, in our projects, with clients] that you think I should be seeing? 

Space to reflect

Just to add a little complexity to the mix, by asking questions that are too targeted or specific you may potentially miss out on valuable and unexpected feedback you may have received if you had given your respondees more room to ruminate. Consider building in some space for open feedback as well. 

A core principle of professional coaching is to ask open questions (sentences that start with who, what, when, & where) and avoid asking questions that start with “why” which can feel accusatory or unnecessarily aggressive. In order to get the respondee (or coach-ee in this case) to help weigh in on possible solutions for challenges they are facing (and this is one of your primary goals in continuous improvement!) professional coaches will also walk their ‘coachees’ through a solutioning exercise (using ‘how’ questions primarily) and discuss how they would suggest resolving or addressing a challenge or area that needs improvement. 

Crit Seeker, again, cheers to your desire to seek and receive feedback from your team! With some practice, forethought, and preparation, the process of giving and getting professional can be a powerful (and painless!) mechanism for continuous improvement. Remember, come to the conversation having completed: 

  • Building an environment of support and genuine curiosity (high degree of psychological safety)

  • Letting your teammates know what to expect and why feedback is an important part of a supportive team that is focused on continuous improvement 

  • Expressing genuine curiosity and openness to suggestions

  • Crafting your questions to give your peers the space and direction they need to give you thoughtful responses

  • Practicing how you might handle tough conversations and demonstrate openness to change

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About the author

Abby is a digital project management train­er and con­sul­tant at Loud­er Than Ten and is pas­sion­ate about con­nect­ing peo­ple inter­est­ed in digital project management to access to the right set of tools and resources. She has taught Dig­i­tal Project Man­age­ment class­es for Girl Devel­op It, guest lec­tured at Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts’ con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion pro­gram, co-chairs DPM Philly, and men­tors peo­ple in the field of dig­i­tal project management.

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