How to “kick some ask” at work

Struggling with that empowerment promise that you “own your own career here,” yet feeling not quite sure just how to go about it? Are you a little disenchanted with this whole concept of feedback as the road to the enlightened, optimized you?

We are too. What to do? At PeopleFirm, we recommend you roll up your sleeves and “kick some ask.” Does the thought of asking make you afraid? Me too. Fear has long limited the important role feedback should be playing in our working lives. And that fear is the result of feedback gone wrong. It’s paralyzed the flow of good, helpful communication; it’s demoralized well-intentioned people and, by extension, entire organizations are missing the lift that authentic, true, and helpful feedback can offer.

How do we fix it? We face into it. Rather than run from it we run directly into it and become feedback seekers.

"seekers" definition

The benefits of seeking:

  • You generate connection and psychological safety: When you ask, you kick fear into reverse and trust into high gear for both you and the person you’re asking. We call these Extenders. Brain science demonstrates that people are more receptive to feedback when they ask for it. Asking puts our brain in a more reward-oriented state that allows us to be more open to learning. Our brains have a tendency to leap into fight or flight mode during a feedback exchange that comes at us unannounced. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and the brain signals the body to react to a feedback exchange much like a physical threat. The smart thinking and empathetic part of the brain shuts down, the heart rate increases, and the body is primed to physically resist or flee the situation. Same goes for the Extender of feedback. When you ask permission in advance for someone to give you specific feedback, the fight or flight response is less active in the Extender, allowing both you and them the psychological safety to speak more authentically and freely. You have granted them permission, so the response is less likely to be guarded or disingenuous. Fear signals in the brain are minimized and both parties in the conversation are more likely to feel trust, collaboration, hope, and possibility. You might actually be able to process and do something with this kind of feedback.
  • You create and demonstrate a growth mindset: Whether you’re a leader or an individual superhero, we can all benefit from being open to the perspective and insights from others. No matter how smart you think you are, optimizing your game at work means it’s important to seek out and consider the perspective, ideas, skills, and opinions of others. Demonstrating a growth mindset (“I’m a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all” ) means we believe we can learn something from just about anyone. Not one of us is as smart as all of us.
  • You get what you need: When you are a Seeker, you control the construal. Construal is a fancy term for asking for focused feedback. Construal level covers the spectrum from abstract to concrete, and research has shown people have individual differences in the levels they prefer. For example, if you want to improve your presentation skills, a high-construal ask might look like, “What are the objectives I should have covered during my presentation?” A low-construal question could be, “What did you notice about my eye contact during my presentation today?” The first deals more with the high-level why, the second with the specific how or what. Get really clear on the one thing you are asking for, then narrow it even more. When you tailor your feedback request to your preferred level of construal, you own what comes your way and this is where real learning begins.

Tips for Successful Seeking: 

  • Tip #1: Ask in Advance: Asking in advance is the most effective way to get what you seek. It clarifies for the Extender the information you’re seeking, and it allows them time to consider and prepare their answer. Giving them advance notice avoids putting on the spot, and it usually improves the quality of the feedback they provide. Asking in advance is not the 30-second blast in the hallway before you go live with the big client proposal, and I don’t mean asking someone to check your work before you send it to the boss. Connect with your Extender in a time and place that gives them the context up front about what you want information on. “Hey, I’m working on my eye contact during these client proposals. I know you’ll be in the room next week, would you be willing to observe and let me know how you experience my eye contact?” is a clear, up-front ask. Asking after the event is less optimal for both you and the Extender because they may not have been tuned into what you wanted noticing on.
  • Tip #2: Focus Your Ask: Remember that construal thing? Bust it out here and get specific and focused. Research indicates that we are likely to stimulate a fear response in a potential Extender when we hit them with a broad ask like, “How am I doing?” The best means for lowering their stress and getting an authentic and helpful response is to request feedback that’s specific and focused.
  • Tip #3: Increase Your Sources: The more sources of feedback you enlist, the more you’ll increase the learnings and insights you can gather. Additionally, getting feedback from a cross-section of people makes it more likely that you’ll get a truer picture of your performance than if you’re relying only on the observations of one co-worker or only your boss. If you’re working on a problem, trying to improve your game, tackling that next level on the competency ladder, or striving to be a better leader, then gathering perspectives from numerous angles will give you broader awareness about other perspectives and increase the fairness and accuracy of the feedback that you take in.
  • Tip #4: Ask for noticing, not evaluation or judgement: Noticing is observing without judgment. When we notice ourselves, other people, or behaviors without judgment, we observe things as they are, without attaching emotion, ego, or story. When you ask for noticing, you relieve the Extender of the psychological distress of rating you (good or bad) or ranking you or judging you. Let them know the nature of the feedback you’re looking for (ask in advance and focus your ask) and when you’ll be looping back to see what they observed or experienced. Ask them to provide a mirror-like descriptive view of what they noticed, and how they experienced it, not whether it was good or bad.
  • Tip #5: Ask for the good stuff: Don’t shy away from the good stuff. This feedback game can be rough, so shore up your strengths, hone the crafts you love and excel at, and find your superpowers. Playing to your strengths is the secret to a happy and meaningful life, so you better know what your superpowers are and how they bring value to others. And the best way to know is simply to kick some ask. It’s okay to ask a boss or co-worker who compliments you to give more detail. “You said I did a good job in there today. What exactly was the good bit?” Then double down on that superpower next time! Make sure your seeking strategy helps you recognize the things you love, then let that insight help you fall in love with your work everyday. There is no better way to optimize your self and your contribution to your organization.

About the Author

Laura Dowling Grealish

Laura is a lead consultant at PeopleFirm known for her passion and conviction to optimize human potential by bringing the human back into the workplace.