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Feedback? Or Advice?

| October 1, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… Which do I need?


I’ve been working on a rollout plan for a new major application. And, before I present that plan to the clients, I need to give the presentation a test run. I can ask my test audience to give me feedback or I could ask them for advice. What do I do? Does it make a difference?
If I ask for feedback, because people find it difficult to give critical feedback, I may get comments that do not provide the necessary information to significantly improve either the content or delivery of the presentation. And, in particular, I may not get the careful examination of the rollout plan that I need. Psychologically, most of us find it difficult to give such feedback.
In a recent paper,1 Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal, and Ashley Whillans report that their recent research suggests that feedback has no, or even a negative, impact on performance. The feedback we get is often too vague and fails to clearly indicate what we can improve and how to improve. The authors report that more effective input is received when we ask for advice.
A series of experiments conducted by the authors, found that asking for feedback often results in vague and often “praising” comments. When asked for advice, people offered more critical and actionable input, sometimes in specific terms.
The authors note that in one experiment, “compared to those asked to give feedback, those asked to provide ‘advice,’ suggested 34% more areas of improvement and 56% more ways to improve.” In other experiments, advice more frequently contained detailed explanations of what worked and what didn’t, while feedback included generalities. 
Why is it then that asking for advice appears to be more effective than asking for feedback? The authors of this paper1 believe that this has to do with feedback being associated with evaluation. When we were in school we received feedback on our performance, most often with letter or numerical grades. At work, we receive feedback in the form of performance appraisals, often with a few summary sentences and an indicator such as Exceeds, or Meets, or Fails to Meet Expectations, or Significant Improvement Required. The authors write, “Because of this link between feedback and evaluation, when people are asked to provide feedback, they focus on judging others’ performance.” In other words, when we are asked for feedback we tend to focus on general performance over a longer period of time than on the specific topic at hand. 
Conversely, when asked for advice, an individual tends to focus on the specific issue at hand. And, we are more likely to focus on possibilities and opportunities than reaching backwards to compare the present with what you have done in the past. Depending upon the context of the request, we may be able to provide a detailed explanation of what worked and what didn’t and suggestions for improvement.
So, the issue appears to be simple: If I ask for feedback on a specific issue, the response I get will often also include the responder’s knowledge of my past that is related to the issue at hand. The result may have fewer and/or less tangible suggestions for the future. However, if I ask for advice, the respondent is more likely to focus forward on how to make the project better, on opportunities to improve.
And, finally, IF when you ask for feedback you are clear about exactly what feedback you want – what feedback do you have for me to make this project report better?, to improve the content of my presentation?, to sharpen my focus on my client’s primary needs?, on what I need to be improving?, etc. – you are much more likely to get a response that is specific, actionable, and not over-burdened by your past.
Gary Burnisonsuggests that when you seek advice or feedback, you:

  •  Know what advice you want.
  • Come prepared with the specific details needed to define the problem. If you don’t come with the details, you will end up telling a “blow-by-blow story” of how you got to where you are, that might result in your advice-giver tuning out, losing focus, and identifying the wrong core issue.
  • Ask the right person. Too often we go to someone we are comfortable with, rather than a more knowledgeable individual.
  • Don’t ask everyone. You won’t be able to follow all of the advice you receive and may create a worse view of yourself because you didn’t take their advice.
  • Don’t assume that you already know the answers.
  • Be grateful. Thank people for their time and the information you received. This will go a long way in maintaining good, valuable relationships into the future.

 Getting input from others about your work, and life, is critical So, whether you seek advice in a specific situation or ask for feedback in that same specific situation, DO. It’s critical to your success.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal, and Ashley Whillans, Why Asking for Advice is More Effective Thank Asking for Feedback, Harvard Business Review, September 2019.
  2. Gary Burnison, Stop asking, ‘Can I pick your brain?’ Harvard researchers say this is how successful people ask for advice, makeit, July 2019.