Finding the right person: How social entrepreneurs decide whom to approach for interpersonal feedback

Social entrepreneurs continuously navigate the trade-offs between purpose and profit and the ethical dilemmas that come with these trade-offs, often with limited resources. Given these challenges, it is no surprise that social entrepreneurs are often advised to incorporate feedback into their decisions, designs, and approaches. Feedback can help the social entrepreneur to make decisions, while also enabling the organisation to meet the needs of diverse stakeholders.

This advice for social entrepreneurs to incorporate feedback assumes that they have easy access to feedback. However, that is not the case. Social entrepreneurs struggle to access feedback for many reasons. For example, because of the complexity of the social issues they attempt to address, the power dynamics of being seen as “entrepreneurs” and thus in a position of authority, the marginalisation of the communities they work with, or the fact that traditional market-based performance mechanisms, such as sales numbers, are less indicative of the quality of products and services from the perspective of service users.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

This is why social entrepreneurs, and leaders more broadly, have to seek feedback through interpersonal interactions. Yet, these interactions bring about another set of questions and dilemmas: Whom exactly should I approach for feedback? What if the person I approach for feedback appropriates my idea? What if they think of me as incompetent because I am asking for feedback? What if they do not tell me the truth?

Our study aimed to investigate how social entrepreneurs navigate these dilemmas by exploring how they make choices about whom to approach for feedback.

What can social entrepreneurs learn from our findings about deciding whom to approach for feedback?

Start inside your social networks by considering the expected benefits of obtaining optimal feedback. Consider your need for feedback – whether that is to improve or to reduce uncertainty – and identify individuals who have the right expertise or first-hand personal experience. They are likely to provide optimal feedback if they question taken-for-granted assumptions while encouraging you to continue on your mission. Additionally, you may consider if the individual is in a position of power and how that may create opportunities for feedback with unique insights.

Don’t forget the potential costs. Together with the benefits, you may also examine the costs related to time, emotions, or quality of relationships if the person being considered is not engaged or accessible to provide high-quality feedback on something that is deeply important to you. You can also consider how much you trust the person and whether they are likely to appropriate your idea or judge your feedback request as a sign of weakness, indecisiveness, or a lack of knowledge.

Expand the search outside of your social networks when necessary. If no one in your social networks offers the right balance of costs and benefits, you can expand the search through events, membership organisations, recommendations, and social media to search for individuals who meet your criteria, while also putting safety mechanisms in place to protect against the potential costs.

It is OK to give up because the costs are too high and you can’t seem to find the right person.

Adopt a learning perspective and reflect after feedback interactions. Learn from previous feedback interactions and think about what you can change in the future. Re-evaluate the people who were previously approached for feedback and consider whether they are valuable or too risky. Think about how you can start with small steps and test the waters before making important feedback requests.

Feedback is beneficial for social entrepreneurs (and leaders more broadly), but not easily accessible. Seeking feedback through interpersonal interactions to gain the expected benefits while minimising the costs is a process that requires time, care, and learning that can pay off in the long-term.