I get the impression that mentors are reluctant to ask for feedback from their mentees. A few years back, I carefully prepared a feedback sheet designed for mentors to give their mentees. I also suggested that mentors could use the questions as a guide in conversations if they did not want to take the more formal approach of giving out a questionnaire.
I saw very little evidence that the mentors were using the feedback questions, even though I had produced them in response to complaints from mentors that they didn’t get much feedback. I thought I would dig a little more deeply. Why is it so difficult to ask for feedback?
Feedback is challenging to give and receive
In a previous job, the organisation I worked for initiated a ‘3 + 2’ feedback scheme as part of the appraisal process. The individual being appraised would ask two colleagues to give feedback about three things they do well and two things they could improve. I found myself on both ends of this process on several occasions. Both sides were challenging.
Giving feedback to others involved a lot of thought. How do you translate your whole experience of working with someone into a few telling statements? How do you phrase the ‘could improve’ into words that won’t damage a good working relationship? Who am I to tell a trusted colleague what they can improve on anyway?
In asking for feedback, I would need to choose the two people to provide feedback. Knowing how challenging it was to provide the feedback, I then felt bad about giving my colleagues more work to do. Then, I became aware that they’d be ‘out there’ somewhere, focusing on me, thinking about interactions we had, or perhaps procrastinating. What if they couldn’t think of three things I did well? What if they were wishing I hadn’t chosen them?
This experience reminds me how difficult it can be to ask for and give feedback about individuals. Both the asking and giving demand sophisticated interpersonal skills. When asking, you need to trust the other to be both honest and tactful. When giving, you hope the appraisee will receive the feedback with grace and dignity.
A first step in asking for feedback is to set the stage. It helps if you can situate the feedback event as part of the organisational culture – it is a normal part of organisational life for colleagues to seek and give feedback. A frame of reference can be particularly helpful too in setting the stage. For example, you may have a competency framework to refer to, or other behavioural or performance expectations set by your organisation. Let the other person know you respect their opinion and that you will find their feedback valuable.
If this is the first time of taking the initiative to ask a mentee for feedback, it might be easier to choose someone with whom you have a good rapport. Although obtaining feedback on a difficult mentoring relationship could be even more valuable, you might be better off easing yourself in gently.
Time and place
Your choice of time and place is also important. If the feedback is to be given face-to-face, make sure the conversation will not be rushed. At the end of a particularly harrowing day, you might also think twice before going ahead with a planned feedback meeting. An informal setting, such as a private corner of a staff room, a café, or a park bench, can induce a more relaxed conversation than you would achieve in an office.
Remember that you want feedback on your behaviour – the things you do – rather than any personal characteristics you cannot change. Make it clear where the boundaries are. You are asking about your mentoring skills and behaviours, not about anything in your private life. It will help if you have previously agreed goals for your mentoring relationship. You can then refer to these goals to keep the feedback constructive and focused. Any frame of reference by which to evaluate your performance will also come in useful here.
Here are some ideas for what to say:
- Which of your goals have you been able to achieve/make progress towards during our mentoring relationship?
- What did I do well that helped you to achieve that goal/those goals?
- What aspects of the mentoring do you feel could be improved?
- How are you finding the frequency/tone of our chats/meetings?
- Is there anything I could have done to help you settle into the role more smoothly?
- What can I do to make your time here more enjoyable or productive?
- How would you describe our mentoring relationship?
It is not always easy to know how to respond gracefully, whether the feedback is glowing or critical. Glowing feedback can feel ‘too good to be true’ and criticism can raise your defences. Even when the feedback is somewhere in the middle of these extremes, it helps to have rehearsed some responses.
- 'Thank you – I really appreciate that’
- ‘Perhaps we can work on that together in the time we have left’
- ‘Yes, I did wonder whether or not that would work. How would you like to move this on now?’
- ‘I’d like to think about that for a while. Can I get back to you next week?’
- ‘How do you think we could have done that differently?’
If you are reading this post and have some further thoughts on asking for feedback, do make use of the comment box.