"This Training Sucks!" The Why and How of Asking for Feedback

Training teams are somewhat notorious for their focus on feedback. Between user test groups, program pilots, smile sheets and evaluations, we’re a bunch of feedback junkies.  Where I think we fall short is in how we seek and interpret negative feedback.  All too often we focus on asking trainees for superficial feedback and then dismiss negative feedback as “venting” or an “isolated incident.”  In some cases that may be true, but what about the times when the trainee has a good point and we’re too put-off by their language to acknowledge it? 

I won’t mince words here: getting negative feedback sucks.  It’s painful to hear that your training misses the mark; it bruises your ego and shakes your self-confidence.   But if you’re truly committed to improving the quality of training and inviting opportunities for personal growth you need to look beyond the short-term pain and focus on the long-term gain.   This requires setting fears aside and asking for negative feedback in the form of constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is a necessary and healthy part of personal growth. Without it, we exist in a bubble of ignorant bliss that stifles progress and side-steps innovation.  To set ourselves up for long-term gain, we need to know how to ask for meaningful feedback (which includes constructive criticism) and how to accurately assess negative feedback.

Step 1: Ask for Meaningful Feedback

  1. Start with rating scales to gauge initial impressions.  For example, use a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being Poor and 5 being Excellent. But also…Ask reviewers to evaluate only one criterion at a time.  One of my pet-peeves with rating scales is seeing statements like, “Rate your level of satisfaction with the training module’s pace and ease of use.” That statement is requesting evaluation of TWO separate criteria (pace and ease of use).   This is confusing to reviewers who found the online training easy to use, but the pace tedious - or vice-versa.
  2. Then, dig deeper with free-response questions that ask for constructive feedback.  Constructive feedback is factual, impersonal and timely.  In your evaluation instructions, explicitly state what you’re looking for and, since not everyone knows what constructive feedback looks like, define it for them and provide examples of both positive feedback and a constructive critique to help them see how it’s worded.
  3. Distribute feedback surveys to a variety of people outside the project.  Personally, I rely on my marketing peeps for input since their understanding of communication often provides me with the most actionable feedback.  Also consider inviting trusted friends, spouses, current or former colleagues, or even your kids to take your training.  Let’s face it: If today’s sophisticated, PowerPoint-using 10-year old can’t get the gist of what you’re saying, you’re training is probably due for a re-work.

Step 2: Accurately Assess Negative Feedback

  1. Acknowledge that your own fears and insecurities affect how you perceive criticism.
  2. Separate negative feedback from constructive criticism.  Focus on identifying actionable, timely criticisms first and negative feedback second.  Personal or inflammatory comments (e.g. expressions of racial bias, sexism, etc.) should be dealt with separately. 
  3. As you review negative and constructive comments, remain calm and objective.  Read past the words being used to isolate the core of the complaint. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by personal familiarity. And remember, as tempting as it may be to assign a conspiratorial motive to constructive criticism, the truth is that most of us don’t share negative feedback easily and when we do, it comes from a place of honesty – even if the words we’ve chosen are inelegant or harsh.

What are your strategies for dealing with critical comments?  How do you remain calm and objective in the face of negativity?  Share your tips and strategies with us by clicking the comment link.

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