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Tips to generating great feedback questions

Great processes require constant reflection and adjustment which is driven by feedback. Feedback, in turn, requires great questions, as covered in the great feedback blog.

Questions are like recipes. There are the foundational elements that are required to make the dish – the flour , eggs, sugar, and butter. Then there are the secret ingredients and special touches that turns that basic bread or cookie into something truly special and leaves a lasting impression.

Great questions start by focusing on ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ of the question and tailoring it to who you are asking and what their motivation and state of mind may be.

These are the basic ingredients. So, what are the special touches that turn the questions into something truly spectacular?

Here are a few.

Focus on the constructive rather than negative

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Words of wisdom from childhood that, unfortunately, are not always so wise.

For many, giving negative feedback is uncomfortable or considered disrespectful or mean. This is especially true when we have a personal connection to the recipient of the negative feedback. How often have you told a friend that their ‘amazing chicken dish’ is dry and gritty or told your spouse that the new hair style is not at all flattering, or informed a valued colleague that their email writing skills are severely lacking?

Now imagine it’s your boss or potential future boss asking “do you like my amazing chicken dish?”

How likely are you to tell the truth?

Now, what if your boss said instead “I’m working on perfecting this dish, I’d love your thoughts on how I can make it better.”

Perhaps you would respond with something like this: “have you tried using a crockpot to cook the chicken? It’s so easy - just throw it in and comes out so tender, the meat slides off the bone. Do you want my favorite recipe?”

The result is the same, but without ever having to say anything negative.

When drafting feedback questions, rather than using a scale of “how great is my process”, provide a path to critical feedback without the negative.

Example: “Where should we concentrate our efforts to make our process even better.”

Or, use a balanced approach to allow responders to balance their critical feedback with positive feedback.

Example: “What did you find most helpful in the interview FAQ? And what information do you wish was included?”

Make open-ended responses optional

Feedback is a favor. You are requesting valuable information from your candidates and employees likely in exchange for nothing more than a ‘thank you’.

When asking for one-sided favors (i.e. with a compensation of “thank you”), the challenge of receiving them depends greatly on how big the ask. Requesting someone hold open a door for you because your hands are full is often granted. Requesting someone pay for your lunch bill because you forgot your wallet is less so. And requesting someone do your work for you because you have other things to do probably won’t get many takers.

When asking for the favor of feedback, don’t overreach or you will end up getting nothing. Long essay-like questions or open-ended questions requesting a laundry list of responses will likely get a few scribbled words, if anything at all.

Instead, keep the questions tight with multiple choice, scale, or short answer responses. These questions are both fast to answer, and highly structured making them easy to analyze and report on (bonus!). Add optional open-ended questions for those who have more to share, but never require them.

Example: “How effective was the interview guide for the xyz interview:”

  1. Very effective – the interviews went smoothly and naturally

  2. Somewhat effective – the interviews went well, but lacked a natural banter

  3. Not very effective – the questions stagnated the conversation

  4. Not at all effective – the questions were off topic and confusing

Optional follow-up: what suggestions do you have for improving the interview guide?

Bonus tip: keep the feedback questionnaire to 2 minutes or less. Don’t ask for too much effort or time from responders. Not sure how long it will take to fill out? Do it yourself and time it.

Get the feedback as soon as possible

Many impressions are lasting – especially when they stand out as particularly good or bad. Days or weeks can go by and impression remains. Unfortunately, that perception warps with time. Even with the most important and impactful experiences, details grow fuzzy and, within hours, the ability for productive feedback fades.

Consider the last time you ate a great meal – one of those 5 out of 5 star experiences. Just thinking of it makes your mouth water and you get cravings to have it again. Have it in your head? Great - what did the dishes (or bowls or whatever) look like that the meal was served on? Who were you with and how was the conversation? How long did it take to get or make that meal?

Now consider the last meal you ate – just a few hours ago. Can you answer the questions?

Get the feedback right away, while it’s fresh. Or important details that could drive great change will be lost.

Keep scales between 4 and 6 and avoid middles when requiring decisiveness

Scales can be a great way to measure a perception or emotional impression (rate your experience from 1 to 5…). But there are limitations. Humans are not precision instruments. We generally don’t have fine granularity to our opinions and our emotional scales can be shifted by unrelated details, such as the amount of coffee we have consumed, or when we went to bed the night before.

Consider your favorite movies. Which would you give a 9/10 rating (10 being the most perfect movie ever made and 1 being something that should have never been made)? Which would you give an 8/10? Not an easy distinction is it? Would your opinion change of what’s an 8 or 9 if you just had a fantastically funny experience that reminded you of one of the movies or ate something bad while watching one of them? Probably.

When using scales, keep them small – between 4 and 6.

And if you want to avoid the ‘meh’ response (the middle of the road, not bad, not good), don’t provide a middle option (i.e. avoid a 1-5 scale with the middle option of 3). Without a middle option, responders must lean to one side of the scale or another which can force more insight with some questions.

Example: “On a scale of 1-4, How welcomed did you feel during your visit to our facility – where a 1 is ‘I felt like I didn’t belong here’ and a 4 is ‘I was completely at ease’?”

Bringing it all together

Sprinkling in some secret ingredients will turn the basic feedback questions into something valuable, insightful, and impactful. Focus the questions on the positive and constructive, keep the ask reasonable, engage while the experience is fresh, and optimize the scale to reasonable human expectations. With a little effort, your feedback will give incredible returns.

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