Marc Andreessen, a well-respected venture capitalist who co-founded Netscape and invested early in Facebook and Twitter, is always guaranteed to be a great interviewer. He holds nothing back and is well-read and connected in uncommon ways, allowing him to identify unusual trends and opportunities. Naturally, his October interview with New York Magazine was no exception.
After talking at length about Silicon Valley, political systems, robots, and income inequality, interviewer Kevin Roose prompted Andreessen to address how he ever expects to receive honest feedback given that, “If I worked for you, I’d be scared to tell you that your dumb idea was dumb.” Andreessen gets it, explaining that leaders often delude themselves into believing they’re getting honest feedback:
“They’re the last to know. Because they don’t feel like anything’s changed. They just feel like, I’m who I was before, I’m going around, I’m doing my thing. And it’s very rare that they actually stop and think, Everybody’s nicer to me than they were ten years ago… This applies to presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, anybody who gets in a position of power.”
Roose: So how do you, Marc Andreessen, make sure that you are hearing honest feedback?
“Every morning, I wake up and several dozen people have explained to me in detail how I’m an idiot on Twitter, which is actually fairly helpful.”
“The crowd” is often discussed in sourcing novel solutions, funding, and amplifying brands but rarely as an independent sounding board, or ego check, as Andreessen uses it. Of course, doing so requires a willingness to listen and debate with intellectual honesty, something Andreessen has developed quite the reputation for.
But what if Twitter isn’t the right venue for you? Here are some other ways to ensure you’re receiving the truth, or at least someone’s version of it.
Seek non-invested third parties. As the German proverb says, “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.” Getting honest feedback is nearly impossible from those who have something to gain. Look to people who don’t have a stake in your elevated position and make sure they understand you want the full truth.
Blog. Writing down your thoughts for the world to see, assess, and provide feedback can be daunting. A friend once joked to me that trolls must get bored living under bridges because they spend all day commenting online. Feedback comes in lots of different tones, styles, and levels of care and sincerity. Regardless, most of it is valuable. Comments provide an often anonymous forum to understand how you interact with a variety of viewpoints.
Ask anonymously. If you still want the benefits of crowdsourcing, but can’t get comfortable tying ideas to your identity on Twitter or a blog, post ideas and questions in online forums that allow for greater anonymity such as reddit or Quora. Or create an online alter ego.
Make it positive. In a 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek article, Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor Company, explains a tough situation saying, “If you don’t want to know what’s going on and you don’t make it safe to know, then you won’t know. You’ve got to want it…You have to make honest feedback a positive experience.”
Promote honesty. Those in power often fall into the same downward spiral of positive information. Leaders desperately want to be correct, leading them to seek affirmation and promote those who provide it. This leads to a selection bias where, eventually, and sometimes quickly, the only ones left are “yes men.” Combat this by promoting and praising honesty, even when it’s harsh.
Separate emotion from technical feedback. People will often use terms like “good” or “bad” in their feedback, and it’s easy to forget that they’re talking about your work, not you. Make sure to remove the emotion and interpret all comments as being directed at possible technical flaws, not flaws with you as a person.
Take a position. It’s extremely difficult for people to provide valuable feedback if you do not reveal what you’re thinking. Andreessen is upfront about where he stands on an issue; he’s not afraid to be proven wrong. But he’s also informed enough to defend his point of view. Do your research, then be forthcoming about where you stand so you can prompt those with alternative points of view.
Reframe the question. When challenged to provide feedback, most default to specific positives and vague criticism in an effort to blunt the trauma. This allows the valuable part of feedback to be glossed over. The easiest way to get critical feedback is to properly frame the question by saying, “What did I do wrong?” or “What could I have done differently?” and ask the person to be specific.
Remember, the purpose of feedback isn’t to make you feel better; it’s to help you do better. Leaders make decisions, and good decisions are contingent on having the right information. Looking to public dissenters on Twitter might not be the right approach for you, but admitting to yourself that you need to assemble a network of people you can regularly engage with and who will provide honest, humbling feedback is a valuable tactic for anyone who doesn’t believe they have all the answers.
This article was originally published on Forbes.