A reader writes:
I am concerned that I am not getting critical feedback from colleagues and supervisors. Over the last 6 years of my career, the company I worked for had exhaustive assessments to include interviewing up and down the chain as well as clients. In addition, I have actively sought out ongoing critical feedback in one-on-one discussions. Even through these channels I only got good feedback, and most of my development actions centered around expanding existing competencies, which were merely improvements of the good work I was already doing.
Since I have left that job and started a new one, I am experiencing the same thing at my new job — all positive feedback. You’d think that this was great, and that I’m the best worker ever. But the reason I left my last job was because I couldn’t find a path to taking on leadership roles, and I’m beginning to wonder if my lack of critical feedback impacted my ability to find the leadership roles. In other words, I wonder if people tip-toed around what skills, competencies, and potential intangibles I lacked to make me feel good, but didn’t really do much to help me improve on areas I needed to achieve my career goal of taking on senior leadership roles.
Now I’m in a new job and I don’t want to make the same mistake again. Can you provide some ideas for obtaining critical feedback? Also, I’m not abrasive, but I have a big personality and can be a little overly-eager and frank, so I’m looking for ways to make sure I’m providing the right environment to encourage people to provide critical feedback.
This is a great question.
I suspect that you are indeed very good at what you do, given that you describe your last employer’s assessment process as “exhaustive” and you were still getting all positive feedback. That suspicion is reinforced by the very fact that you’re asking this question — it’s a question typically not asked by those who suck at their jobs.
But even people who are great at their jobs still have ways they could grow and improve, and on top of that, you have a particular direction that you’ve been struggling to grow in (leadership roles). So the answer isn’t that there’s just nothing you could be doing better. The trick, as you’ve concluded, is figuring out how to extract that information from people.
Part of the problem — possibly the whole problem — is that most people aren’t very good at providing developmental feedback. If there’s an obvious problem, they can address that (and even then, they don’t always), but a lot of people find it much more challenging to identify ways that someone doing a good job could do an even better one.
I’d recommend scheduling a meeting with your boss and just being straightforward. Say something like, “I really, really value critical feedback, and over the course of my career I haven’t received a lot. I would be hugely grateful to hear your candid thoughts on ways I could be more effective.”
You should also be specific about where you’re trying to go. Explain that one of your goals is to get some experience in leadership roles, and ask what she thinks it would take for you to be able to do that, what she sees potentially standing in your way, etc.
A different option — either in place of the big-picture conversation above, or in addition to it if it didn’t produce results — is to ask for feedback connected to specific pieces of work, by having “mini-debriefs” after a project is done. For instance, you could say something like, “You know, I felt like I had some trouble convincing people of ___ in that meeting. Do you have advice on how I could have approached it differently?” Or, “Do you have thoughts on what we could have done differently on Project Z to have gotten better results?” (You ask this right after the project wraps up, and it’s a project that you managed. And “we” here really means you.)
Last, you mentioned that you have a big personality and wondered if that’s playing a role here. You described yourself as “over-eager and frank,” which aren’t typically qualities that suppress feedback, unless you’re sort of … exhausting? This is a total stab in the dark and might not describe you at all, but if you’re really intense and high-energy, it’s possible that your managers have felt that having a nuanced feedback conversation with you sounds kind of exhausting and since you’re doing a good job anyway, there hasn’t been a real need. I’m not saying that’s good management, but it’s something to consider. I know that the times when I’ve had to really push myself to give feedback have been the times when I’ve known that it’s going to be a tiring conversation.
What other thoughts do people have?