how to get your manager to give you useful feedback

A reader writes:

I’m concerned that I’m not getting the feedback that I need to grow and improve in my job and ultimately move to the next career level. My manager is a nice person and seems happy with my work, but I rarely hear any specifics of what I could be doing better. A few times I’ve tried asking straight out for feedback, but he was just pretty vague and said everything was fine. How can I get real feedback out of him that I can use in my development?

Part of the problem – maybe the whole problem – is that most people, even managers, 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 do that!), but a lot of managers find it much more challenging to identify ways that someone doing a good job could do an even better one.

So your job is to find ways to make it easier for him to think through the information you’re looking for. There are a few ways to elicit that:

* Ask for it directly. Schedule a meeting with your boss and just be straightforward. Say something like, “I really value feedback about my work and what I could do better, and I would be hugely grateful to hear your candid thoughts on ways I could be more effective.” If his response is a vague “everything’s fine,” then narrow your question down: “What are two things that I could focus on doing better?” Or even, “If you could wave a magic wand over my head and change something about how I approach my job, what would it be?”

* Debrief specific projects. 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, “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?” (Ask this right after the project that you managed or were heavily involved with wraps up. And note that “we” here really means you.)

* Talk about what you’re building toward. Talk to your manager about what your career goals are and ask for his advice on what you can do to make yourself best suited to the roles you’d like to take on. What are the skills you should work on developing in order to take that next step, and what’s his advice on what projects might help you do that? For instance, you might explain that you want to get more experience in leadership roles and ask what he thinks it would take for you to be able to do that and what he sees potentially standing in the way.

* When you do get critical feedback, take it well. With a manager who’s already reluctant to give feedback, the worst thing you can do is to react badly if you hear criticism you don’t like or don’t agree with. If you get defensive or upset, you’ll make it harder for your manager to give you feedback in the future. So remember to stay pleasant and professional, and even thank him for the feedback. Show that you value it and that you won’t respond badly, and you’ll be more likely to hear more in the future.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    I cannot agree with your last point enough — it seems like every time I give a couple of my employees constructive feedback they react very defensively, even when they’ve directly asked what I think! It makes me really reluctant to take that initiative with them in the future — I still try, but as a manager, it just makes me feel like I’m failing them if they won’t take my advice to heart.

    1. Vicki*

      If they always react defensively, you may want to rethink your definition of “constructive”… as well as how you are phrasing your feedback.

      1. Jessa*

        Exactly. If they’re coming to you and asking, they’re at least reasonably open to listening. And yes it’s human nature not to take bad feedback in a good way if there are problems. And they may know, at least unconsciously, that there are problems, hence them asking. But if someone who is ready, willing and at least to the best of their ability armoured-on and waiting for feedback, is really handling it badly, there’s an issue.

  2. Jberry*

    As a manager, I’d like to know how to provide this type of feedback when a direct report does a good job in general and learns from her mistakes. She rarely works on any of the projects I am on, though I do seek feedback from others who work directly with her. She’s explicitly asked that I note areas of improvement on her performance evaluation, which, given the very minor issues and the fact that she doesn’t repeat the mistakes, is something I am very reluctant to do. If anything, she seems to have a desperate need for critical input. (And a strong desire to be in charge. I don’t want to squash her initiative, but this is becoming an issue.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Can you tell how how she could go from good to great? If she’s a “B” right now, how would she get to “A”? And if she’s already A, what would make her A+?

      1. Jamie*

        This. I’d only add if she’s consistently at A/A+ work improvement I’d have the discussion about ways to improve outside the current job description.

        You don’t want her to get bored or stagnate – are there other areas which she could add value to the company which she’d enjoy learning? Improvement doesn’t mean you currently suck at something – it can also mean ways to grow and expand beyond what you’re already doing well.

        With a top performer if they are objectively knowing it out of the park every single day and you cannot think of one opportunity for improvement in their current position you have to wonder how long they will be happy without being challenged and work with that person to make sure you’re thinking ahead and offering chances (if possible) to grow outside the role.

        1. Jberry*

          Thanks for your suggestions! The projects that she works on are so diverse that I don’t think she’ll get bored. Rather, I think the constant learning curve, and a very high level of ambiguity, alternately keeps her interested and makes her frustrated. However, depending on the quality of the project manager, assignments can be too simple, adequately complex, or so beyond her skill set that she cannot possible succeed (and would need at least a few years more experience and possibly an advanced degree to be able to do well). I’m not going to penalize her in the latter case. To find the right balance, I’m working with her to keep track of the projects she works on, and she’s been very good with that, but I have no control over what assignments she is given and can only step in when she (or the project manager) signals that there is an issue. I’ll see if I can’t be more proactive when she gets assigned to projects to determine the scope of her task, though.

    2. Anonymous*

      The part in parens seems most interesting and potentially concerning. Are you giving her feedback that her strong desire to be in charge is an issue? Why is it an issue? Do you not want her leading projects and she would like to? Is there an opportunity there? Do you need her to back off? That seems like the place for feedback either how to get to a place where leadership is appropriate or how to stop appearing to take charge when it isn’t ok.

      1. Jberry*

        Thanks for your response. She has opportunities to coordinate components of projects. I haven’t said anything about my specific concerns yet, since I am not sure if she is still finding her place within the project teams and the organization as a whole. One major reason this is an issue is the concerns I have about her judgment. In at least one instance, she’s gone so far out of scope that she potentially damaged a relationship with an outside organization. Mind you, I didn’t hear about this until review time. With my interactions with her, she’s dialed it back once she’s been reminded of the parameters of her assignment. I don’t want to curb her initiative at all. I just want to make sure that she understands her assignment, does it well, and has opportunities to share her ideas and implement them.

        1. Leslie Yep*

          Sounds like a big issue at the root is actually having a clear view of what she’s prioritizing and working on. That is a pretty critical thing! I would definitely suggest coaching on that and helping her design the right “systems” to communicate this to you.

  3. Anna*

    My manager was never good at developing his employees. The only thing that worked for me was seeking out valuable mentors. I went through alot of mentors that were equally bad at providing feedback that was actionable… but I did eventually meet someone who gives me excellent constructive criticism. I credit HIS help to finding my newest position – not my manager.

    So my advice – work on your manager, but also look to others for the same support!

  4. Contessa*

    I’m having a heck of a time with this myself. My boss literally refuses to tell me what to do better next time–when I ask something like, “I realize that X thing didn’t go smoothly, how do you recommend I avoid that next time?” or “What would you have done differently?” I get yelled at about how I should just “use my common sense.” I thought I was doing the right thing asking for feedback, but I’m getting nothing useful, and since my common sense must not match up with this person’s, I just keep making mistakes and getting yelled at about common sense again. Maddening! (these “mistakes” always seem to have more to do with my lack of experience than anything else, which is why I specifically ask someone with decades more experience than I have)

  5. BeeBee*

    I’m having a related but different issue. I’m the junior person on a 2-person design team. I’ve been in this position for 7 months, and my senior co-worker has been here 7 years.

    My co-worker was the one to train me, but didn’t seem enthusiastic about it, and now barely says 2 words to me all day and seems annoyed when I bother her with questions. Our supervisor is actually the manager of the client relations department, and has very little idea what our work actually entails.

    I would like to know how I’m doing, get some ideas on how I could do more to contribute to the company, and start becoming more autonomous and managing my own clients. Right now all client communication has to go through my coworker, which is a problem when she doesn’t like to be bothered.

    I’m not sure how to go about asking for feedback on my own work, or who to ask. Any ideas?

    1. AB*

      I think your problem is less about getting feedback, and more about getting to a point of having more autonomy.

      I’d ask to start having one-on-ones with your supervisor (even twice or once a month should help your manager have more visibility into what you do). Then, after a while, you could probably propose a change, say, you start to manage a few clients instead of having to rely on your coworker for all communications. Explain how it’s going to make things more efficient, suggest copying our coworker (or manager) in the initial communications as a way of having them feel more confident in your skills, etc.

      Be proactive in finding ways to become more autonomous — I don’t think asking for feedback is what will get you there.

  6. Cassie*

    In the ballet world, lack of feedback is never a problem. If you’re doing something wrong or aren’t in the right place on stage, you will be told. Over and over again.

    At my workplace (university office setting, non-ballet), the chances of getting feedback is about 40-60. Getting *useful* feedback that helps you figure out next steps is about 10-90.

    One thing I’ve realized is the difference in how feedback is given. In ballet, you are told *what* to do: get in line, soften your arms, point your feet, straighten your legs. In the real world, you are told *what not* to do, like don’t send out emails with typos. But usually not in that many words – it’s more like “there’s a typo in this email”. And so what? What’s the next step? For the staffer who doesn’t even regularly notice typos, what’s the next logical step that needs to be taken?

    1. AB*

      Cassie (the same applies to what Contessa wrote above),

      I think that the difference between ballet training and a job is that in the work environment, you are expected to analyze your mistake and figure out a plan to avoid them in the future.

      – Made typos in an email to a customer?
      You can decide to turn on the spellchecker, write in a text editor with spell/grammar check and then copy to the email body, create a rule that you will save customer emails as drafts, take a quick break and re-read from the bottom up to reduce the risk of sending something with a mistake to a customer, etc.

      – Approved an exception for a colleague in another department, and your manager complained about it?
      Discuss with your manager how to differentiate exceptions you can grant yourself vs. the ones that need to be escalated to him/her, or flat out denied, so that you can maintain some autonomy but within the expected boundaries.

      And so on.

      It’s up to *you* to figure out a system to prevent the same mistake from happening in the future. Your manager don’t really care what method you use, only that you don’t repeat the same mistake in the future. I only have 2 people reporting to me and still don’t have time to sit down with them and figure out a plan to avoid them repeating a mistake. I can only imagine how it is for someone with 6 or 10 subordinates.

      Yes, it would be nice to get the answer for “what’s the next logical step for the staffer who doesn’t regularly notice typos”, but I consider it part of my subordinates’ job to figure out something, because I have my own problems to solve.

      1. Cassie*

        I agree that it is up to me, or the worker in question, to figure out what to do and what not to do. I certainly try to analyze what went wrong and keep it in mind for next time. (In my reference to ballet, I’m talking about professional dancers; naturally in a training setting, you expect the teacher to give corrections, but the same happens in pro companies).

        I’m talking about coworkers who can’t analyze their mistakes, either due to lack of ability or because they simply don’t care, and their supervisors who either don’t have the supervisory skills or time to coach them.

        It’s a bit dicey giving feedback as a peer.

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