Getting Feedback Indirectly

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Among the many ways to seek feedback, the most obvious and certainly the most discussed is directly asking another person for feedback. We may do this directly by asking questions like:

  1. Can I get your feedback on this?
  2. I’m struggling with X. Might you have any insights on how I can improve?

In 1983, researchers Ashford and Cummings referred to this as feedback-seeking behavior. Since that paper’s publication, this topic has been a dominant research theme. A 1999 paper by Williams, Miller, Steelman, and Levy even opens with:

“In the feedback area, perhaps the most dominant theme of the past 15 years has been the perspective introduced by Ashford and Cummings, which suggested that individuals are active seekers of feedback information.”

Some 25 years later, it remains a significant focus of workplace feedback research, and it has been expanded upon and studied from various angles that lead us to have some solid data around how:

  1. The feedback culture matters. Employees are more likely to seek feedback in psychologically safe environments where asking for feedback is seen as a positive behavior.
  2. The feedback giver matters. Similar to culture, the availability and style of the feedback giver can influence how often and how comfortable others are in asking for feedback.

The angle we will cover today concerns seeking feedback through more indirect means.

Indirect Feedback-Seeking

Broadly speaking, indirect feedback-seeking is getting feedback in ways such that the feedback provider doesn’t know they are serving as a feedback provider (Krasman, 2010).

Feedback via Indirect Inquiry

One common way, particularly in workplace cultures that are highly individualist, psychologically unsafe, or simply new to the seeker, is to disguise the feedback through hinting, joking, or non-direct questions. A graphic designer, for example, may get a type of feedback from their CMO by saying something like:

“The rebrand of X Company sure generated a ton of buzz, right?”

This leaves room for them to get the CMO’s thoughts on the rebrand, which could indirectly help them understand the CMO’s design tastes and the overall feedback environment in which they are operating. As you can see, the challenge here is that this indirect approach tends to be vague and often means the feedback-seeker gets an equally vague message they often need to figure out how to leverage.

All of this, again, points to the importance of feedback givers, particularly people managers, ensuring they create environments where feedback seekers can approach them more directly.

Feedback via Reflective Comparison

One other indirect way to seek feedback, one far more impactful, is reflective comparison. As mentioned briefly in How To Receive Feedback Effectively (Module 1 in the Constructive Feedback course), it essentially means observing some qualities in others, comparing that to your own, and using that comparison as a point of feedback for how you might be able to improve.

In my experience, this form of indirect feedback-seeking is vital for professional growth. While getting direct feedback from others is always important, intentionally observing others you see modeling your future state can also catapult your growth. Much of the current research on this comes from the world of sports, where it’s been shown that athletes of all types — from golfers to gymnasts — can improve by observing the elite performance of others, either via in-person demos or by studying videos.

Finding Your Feedback Mix

As you navigate your professional career, it’s worth thinking through the areas where you pursue feedback directly and indirectly. You might ask the following questions:

  1. When do I directly ask others for feedback? Who do I ask most frequently? How can I create an environment where others feel comfortable asking me for feedback?
  2. How do I get feedback indirectly? Who might serve as a model for where I want to be? Why them? How might I grow through observing what they do particularly well?


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