Everyone wants to get better. Heck, there's an entire multibillion-dollar industry called self-improvement that takes form in a myriad of ways. The question is, how does one get better in a better way? How do you do it more efficiently and effectively?

Researchers from the Harvard Business School can now lend a hand.

Let's say you've just given a key sales presentation. The normal line of thinking goes that if you want to improve, then you should ask the people you just gave the presentation to for feedback. Seems reasonable.

But the Harvard researchers discovered that there's a real problem with this approach. Feedback is often too vague to be helpful. And, in my experience, when you frame it as asking for feedback, people often default to being nice and not wanting to say what they really think. It's human nature. But human nature doesn't nurture in this case, it just glosses over.

The researchers say there's a far better alternative if you want to get better at something--ask for advice.

Why asking for advice is better than asking for feedback

In one study, the researchers asked 200 people to give input on a job application, asking some to give feedback on the application and others to give advice. Those who gave feedback were vague and glossed over flaws in the application, giving only praise.

Those who were asked to give advice gave more critical and actionable input. In fact, advice-givers gave comments on a whopping 34 percent more areas of improvement and gave 56 percent more ways to improve. Three more studies by the researchers produced similar conclusions.

The studies also highlighted another problem with asking for feedback--it's associated with evaluations.

Imagine you just got offstage from giving that sales presentation I mentioned earlier. You then pick out an audience member to give you feedback. What happens? They immediately go into evaluation mode rather than picturing how you could do that presentation better in the future. So their comments migrate to observations of how well you did something (or not), in their minds articulating a mental letter grade they're giving you.

But if you ask for advice instead, it puts the audience member in a different frame of mind. Now, implicit in the fact that you're asking for advice is the fact that you're open to getting better.

Oftentimes when we ask for feedback, we're really asking because we want to feel validated, and the person we're asking instinctively knows that. Asking for advice shows you're letting down your guard in an effort to improve, and people will put more energy and specificity into helping you do just that.  

There's one important caveat to this, from my experience. When someone comes to you for coaching, you have to be careful not to instantly go into advice-giving mode, even if he or she is asking for advice. Classic coaching techniques would tell you that you have to ask the coachee questions that help them determine their own point of view, rather than your giving one to them via advice-giving.

All in all, though, take the advice in this column and ask for advice versus feedback. Efficient and effective growth will be just around the corner.

Published on: Oct 17, 2019
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