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How to Seek Out Constructive Feedback

About the Author

Jonathan Ng is a national security and international affairs specialist currently serving as a Defense Legislative Fellow in the U.S. Senate. He has over seventeen years of managerial experience in the U.S. federal government and military; in 2003, he led an Army combat unit during the U.S. invasion into Iraq. He holds a B.S. in Economics from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a MBA, and recently completed coursework for a Master’s in Legislative Affairs from the George Washington University; in 2016, he was a Senior Executive Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


Often times, we are narrowly focused on training and education as the primary means to be professionally developed for the next level of responsibility. However, proactively and persistently seeking constructive feedback from those around us is the most accessible, immediate, and unlimited manner that we can realize incremental improvements for future success. Receiving praise is nice – positive feedback is often uplifting – but we won’t reach our full potential without spending more time analyzing constructive feedback about our areas of weakness and how we can improveThe biggest barrier preventing us from capitalizing on constructive feedback is ourselves. The tendency to perceive feedback as a personal affront is a function of ego. Try not to view constructive feedback as negative criticism, denigration, personal attacks, or blame; rather, embrace constructive feedback as an opportunity to become a better professional. To do so, consider soliciting feedback from the following sources:

1. Supervisors. Constructive criticism is often viewed as a difficult conversation; it can be a potential source of tension and awkwardness in supervisor-employee relations. The next time you submit a product, or provide a presentation, ask your supervisor “How do you think I did, and what I could specifically do to improve next time?” This will do two things (1) Force an honest conversation for feedback and (2) let your supervisor know you are open to criticism and are genuinely interested in being coached for self-improvement. There is no one better to seek constructive feedback from than the supervisor who evaluates your performance on a daily basis.

2. Mentors. Good mentors provide honest and candid feedback; a mentee must be willing to accept that constructive criticism, reflect on and internalize it, and apply those changes necessary to realize improvement. As Bill George writes, “Mentors are not necessarily people who make you feel good about yourself or tell you that you can do anything. Sometimes the best mentors provide tough love by being critical as a means of teaching….” 

3. High-performing Coworkers. Seek out a coworker whose work and professional reputation is highly respected in the office. Ask them to review our product, or listen to your presentation, and state that you would like to hear from them three ways you could improve. By actively initiating a feedback loop, you’re messaging to others that you value their perspective, are open to criticism, and expect comments that are specific and focus on improvement areas; this will not only improve your performance, but enhance your professional reputation.  

We all need to more proactively solicit constructive feedback from others to learn how we can improve; do this after a presentation, submission of a product, execution of an event, or during periodic performance counseling – and truly embrace the feedback. The feedback may be communicated in a very direct manner, but depending on the source, it may also be transmitted through very subtle and mitigated language – it’s our responsibility to actively listen and interpret what others are telling us.  Understanding what we did well is important to sustain good practices, but it’s equally important to learn how we could have done something better. Before dismissing feedback, make more of an effort to objectively internalize it, and determine how to best incorporate it in the future. 

Jonathan Ng