how can I get critical feedback?

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?

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Matt*

    I’ve been in those shoes. I was lucky enough that my company sent me to Eckerd College for their Leadership Development Program. I was able to get “semi” anonymous feed back from managers. They actually said things for the survey about me that I’d never heard them say to my face before. It was a REAL eye opener.

    Find out if your company does any of these type programs.

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    I think you need to talk to your manager. Tell them what your goals are, what problems you think you are encountering reaching those goals, and any advice on how you might be able to overcome those goals. Don’t expect a reply immediately, schedule a discussion for later on to give him/her time to think about it.

    The double edged sword is that if your manager doesn’t want you to be doing what you want to do, you’re going to screw yourself.

  3. DJO*

    Although I’ve learned a lot from this site over the last few years, it’s typically been more what-not-to-do, as taken from AAM’s replies and the comments.

    Today, however, is truly the first time I’ve found myself *exactly* in the situation the OP describes.

    Thanks, AAM, for providing this outstanding platform.

  4. CK*

    Have you ever tried a way of getting this feedback anonymously (ie. 360 feedback)? There may be some who are not comfortable giving critical feedback face-to-face and would rather do it anonymously, although this doesn’t always guarantee that you will get what you are looking for.

    Also, it might be worthwhile finding out what leadership competencies are most important in your company so that it gives you a frame of reference for what areas you should be developing. This way, you can approach people and ask them for feedback on specific competencies vs. asking them generally, “I would like critical feedback on my performance.”

    1. clobbered*

      Boy I could have written the OP’s letter.

      I agree that 360 feedback is great. In the event your organisation does not support it, you can roll your own (perhaps as part of a project debrief as AaM suggests). Look into the 360 lit for examples on how to phrase questions. Set up an anonymous survey on surveymonkey (or similar site) and send it around to your team. Set up the survey not to collect IP addresses.

      In my opinion (and especially if you are looking to improve leadership skills) you are better off getting feedback from your peers and supervisees than your supervisors, who sometimes may only care that you get the job done with little overhead on their part. Setting up an anonymous survey may very well be the only way to get honest feedback from people over which you have some kind of organisational power, or which you intimidate with your personality (despite your best efforts perhaps).

      Just stick to a few well-thought out questions, though, don’t turn it into War and Peace.

  5. M*

    I also have the same issue as the OP. I’ve had 8 performance reviews with my current boss and every year I’m “doing great”. Minor stuff to work on, etc. I’ve even tried 360’s and anonymous surveys – still, mostly positive. So it’s hard to know what to do about it, but at my next performance review I will definitely be trying the straightforward approach that AAM suggests.

    I do agree that goal alignment is important though – for example, I’m interested in continuous improvement (6 sigma, etc). My boss, for all I know, sees me on a completely different path.

  6. Ask a Manager* Post author

    One other thought that didn’t make it into the post — I don’t know why this is, but for some reason this is a question that sometime produces an answer where others don’t: “If you could wave a magic wand over my head and tweak something, what would it be?”

    So try that too if your boss is insisting you’re perfect!

  7. Emily*

    Maybe approaching this issue in a different way would be helpful? Ultimately, you’re trying to move into leadership positions, so maybe it would be better not to worry so much about getting critical feedback, and instead to approach your manager for more action oriented strategies? To ask for advice on getting from one place or the other rather than just a general “how am I doing?”

    Giving feedback is often draining as well as difficult – it’s a particular skill that a lot of people just haven’t developed. I think it’s helpful for the person looking for help to try to make that as easy as possible – by asking specific, simple questions. This might also loosen tongues, allowing someone to better respond to “anything else I should work on?” I think probably the principles of writing a good survey would also apply to trying to get constructive feedback from co-workers.

    1. fposte*

      I totally agree with this theory. Don’t ask for “feedback,” ask what you can do to make yourself best suited to the roles you’re hoping to play, with those roles clearly named. Additional points if you have specific types of behaviors or tasks to inquire about based on what good models in those positions currently do (“Bev clearly makes a point of attending conferences–is that a good step for me at this point?”), because that proves that you’re paying attention and prepared to take specific actions.

  8. Alexandra*

    Once again, your advice is timely and something I can employ in my immediate career. This question has been nagging me for months – I’m in a position where my predecessor was so incompetent, superiors were taking the time out of their day to thank me for filing alphabetically. As someone in a relatively simple entry-level position looking to progress within the organization, “you’re a rockstar” for filing in a timely fashion isn’t going to do much to help me down the road.

    I feel much more prepared to attempt a candid and comprehensive performance review next week!

  9. hello*

    Make it easier for others.

    Like AAM said, you got to communicate your goals. Feedback is a difficult thing to give sometimes when you don’t know the other persons goals. If I know a person wants to be a manager one day, then I feel more comfortable telling them they need to make confident decisions – because we both know that’s what managers have to do. If I don’t know what a persons goals are, then I can’t mentally refer to anything to give them feedback on. So share your goals and qualities you want to work on so people can give you more quality feedback.

    Like a poster above me said, your company may have a list of leadership competencies such as:

    Good Listening Skills

    I’ve taken a list like this, went up to my boss, asked him where I stand on each of the points and received quality feedback.
    It’s harder for someone to get away with saying you are doing ‘good’ to all of these. And if they say you are doing good,well, now your feedback has more substance. Ask him if he can rate you from 1-10, if it seems your boss is willing.

    Also, I think a deterrent in getting constructive feedback can be the ‘eagerness’ you portray. *If* you are constrantly seeking feedback (which is the impression I am getting), you may feel it shows you have energy in developing yourself for the company. For a manager, it may be coming across more as someone excessively worried, someone not confident about their abilities, and someone who is seeking reassurance constantly. A managers may wonder what will happen if they finally give it to you after you’ve asked so much – Will you go home and be depressed, will it discourage you thus preventing you from working? Make sure you aren’t looking too worried and preoccupied with the idea of constructive feedback – because if you do, they are going think any ‘constructive feedback’ will be ‘destructive feedback’.

    And others said, constructive feedback alone isn’t going to provide enough energy to make you a leader. As a fundemental step, communicate your goals!

  10. Gillian*

    Great advice in both the post and the comments! It can be difficult to encourage candid feedback on job performance, and it’s helpful to hear these perspectives.

  11. JerseyVol*

    Thank you to everyone for the feedback-I am the original questioner. I think all of these are great ideas and I intend to use them. Leaving my last job was heartbreaking-we got 360 reviews, it was always positive, but the 360s didn’t match my supervisors’ actions (I had 3-4 managers)-I couldn’t get myself promoted to save my life despite declarations and asking what I could possibly do to get into the mythical “leadership pipeline”. I decided that I didn’t want my career to wait another year for their assessment process to figure it out.

    The new job has only been about 3 months, so I am a little reluctant to do something as radical as a survey. I have, however, scored a very lucky senior executive mentoring session (the person is not in my chain but is at a place of leadership where I aspire to be). I have been wondering what to ask at our session, and these comments have really helped to steer me in the right direction. Thank you all!

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