The Need for Feedback
by Dianna Booher

As a busy executive constantly balancing schedules, deadlines, and priorities while dealing with a vast variety of personalities, there is an often-neglected resource that can make the difference between success and failure and conducting business with relative strangers or trusted partners. The crucial resource is feedback. 

Though it can come in every size, shape, and manner from a nod of the head to a detailed document, feedback is probably one of the most misused, misunderstood, and misinterpreted managing tools but worth it's weight in gold if mined consistently and effectively.

While most professionals spend a great deal of time assimilating, assessing, and acting upon information after completing a project, relatively little time is spent reviewing, reevaluating, and reorganizing information during the event.  If astronauts, soldiers, and athletes need constant and thorough communication with their associates and support staffs, shouldn't the same be true in business?  The most successful executives not only want constant, credible, and constructive feedback, they know they need it. 

Take the Initiative. 

Most professionals mistakenly assume that feedback will automatically appear on their desk or in their e-mail.  While they sit on their hands waiting and wondering, more insightful and aggressive professionals know that the best feedback has to be extracted, digested, and analyzed. 

Few people naturally give feedback.  They may not think they know you well enough to impose their views on you.  They may feel it's not their responsibility to tell you how to run your business.  They might not care enough to volunteer information.  They may not want to create hard feelings or ruin a smooth relationship.  They may even think they shouldn't "bother the boss with trivialities."

Don't leave the responsibility to others.  This is your job, so take the initiative.  Send out a response letter.  Get on the phone.  Meet with your associates to plan and review the event.  You have too much to lose if you don't get feedback and much to gain if you do.

Ask the Right People the Right Questions.

Too often it's not that we don't ask for feedback, it's that we ask the wrong person or the wrong question and we end up with gossip and guesswork. We ask associates for information only clients would know, clients about things only vendors would know, and vendors for data only associates would know.  To get the right response, you have to ask the right person.  You're not just looking for random advice but solid, dependable, and expert opinion.

It's your responsibility to phrase your questions so others understand the content and scope of your request.  Do you want general or specific information?  Suggestions for next year or complaints about last year? Personal opinions or irrefutable facts? The more focused your requests, the more precise, comprehensive, and helpful their responses will be. 

Queue Up with Smart Questions.

After you have initiated the feedback and sought out the right people asking him or her the right questions, you need to decipher what has been communicated. Does their feedback need your feedback?  Maybe their comments aren't clear or directed enough and you need further definition.  Just as your questions soliciting feedback need to be clear and concise, so should be your questions probing into the feedback you receive.

"I was surprised at the choice for Wilson's replacement."  "The facilities you recommended were not appropriate for our needs."  "I was expecting more help from  your staff."  All of these comments, though possibly very helpful, need further explanation. Does "surprised" mean they were unhappy with Wilson's replacement or were not expecting it?  By "not appropriate," do they mean the rooms were too small, too large, or too ill equipped?  Was your staff not available to help, not willing to help, or unable to meet the unexpected demands asked of them? Probe deeper into unclear feedback or you'll be left with mere complaints.

Draw on Expertise from Your Associates and Partners.

Most of the professionals you deal with are just that professionals - experts in their fields of finance, sales, marketing, information systems, meeting planning, travel coordination, publishing.  In other words, they know more than you do about certain issues or methods.  And of the myriad of decisions you face daily, few of them have not been heard of and successfully dealt with by those with whom you associate. 

Instead of insisting on a 5:30 p.m. start for your downtown mixer, ask the shuttle company for preferable times and routes.  You may save yourself time, tension, and traffic headaches.  Though you used a particular look for last year's marketing brochure, ask if the printer has any creative alternatives.  They may have great ideas you had not
considered or known about.

Be careful not to have your mind set so firmly that you can't entertain better or newer suggestions.  Effective executives are not the people who know all the answers but the ones who know whom to ask for the answers and what to do with the answers once they get them.

Consider Negative Feedback a Gift, Not a Gripe. 

Resist the urge to fight back when receiving feedback because you will receive it from time to time.  Feedback is rarely personal.  Most of it can be instructive and useful.  Remember, your primary concern is in your long-term job performance and effectiveness.  Some of the most biting criticism turns out to be the most truthful, helpful, and needed insight.

Management guru Peter Drucker contributes constructive and even "scathing" critiques in his early years as a journalist to his eventual development and success as an educator.  Some feedback can be shocking, even depressing, but it's your attitude that will make the difference if you use or ignore criticism.

As with Medicine, Apply Liberally to the Affected Area.

After you solicit feedback and make sure you understand the comments, analyze and evaluate them in light of your personal goals and methods. 

What are they really saying in their feedback?  Is it an accurate assessment or a biased opinion?  Are they being overly sensitive?  Are you being overly sensitive?  Does the person know what they're talking about?  Should you change your approach or attitude?  If you don't need to change, how do you respond to the person who gave you the feedback?

As the saying goes, "Don't just stand there, do something."  Feedback must be acted upon, not merely acknowledged, if it is to be useful.  So evaluate, reconsider, modify, change, or reaffirm.  But do something! Every bit of feedback should help you change or strengthen the resolve and motivation for what you do.

Not all feedback is created equal.  Some are nagging concerns, some are more related to personality or style, some are right but inappropriate, some are dead on, and some are just plain wrong.  But all needs to be heard and considered.

Whether you're dealing with caterers or clients, entertainers or executives, athletes or advertisers or all of them at once feedback is a great barometer for not only knowing where you are at and where you're heading, but also where your efforts should be focused next time.

Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm. Her programs include communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published 40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, February 2001), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill), and The Esther Effect (Nelson-Word). Several have been major Book Club selections.
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