how can I get more feedback from my boss?

It might sound nice to never get any critical feedback from your boss, but it can actually be a bad thing.

My guest on this week’s episode of the Ask a Manager podcast is in that position and wants to know how to draw more feedback out of her manager. The show is 21 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

Here’s the letter:

I’ve been in a department head role that I enjoy and suits me well for about 1.5 years. I took a somewhat lateral move to join this company for this job after being fairly aggressively recruited as part of their ‘corporate succession planning’ (their words). The idea is that I will eventually replace my boss, who is a member of the C-suite and in his mid-50s. The good news? It’s going great! I get tons of good feedback, lots of autonomy, and have a great relationship with my boss, team and coworkers. In the first several months after joining, he twice made comments about how he sees me someday succeeding him if I remain interested and that everything was going well. Great!

So, to my issue, which is… I never really get any negative feedback. I know that sounds like a great problem to have, except that no one is perfect – and I’m not some mystical unicorn that somehow is! I’m also self-aware enough to know there’s a lot, especially industry related, that I don’t know in depth yet and want to improve on. While I’m quite happy in my role now and not looking to advance or move for several years, I also want to be strengthening my future possible candidacy for his role.

I have had official development meetings as well as ad hoc feedback on projects and reports. There’s just never any feedback to change anything I’m doing! I hesitate to provide too much specificity in naming what I think are my deficiencies (feels like self-sabotage if he hasn’t noticed?), but I want to know how he and the other executives see my weaknesses. Can you help me articulate the right wording to basically say, “hey! Tell me what you think I’m bad at!” My thought was a script along the lines of: “I’m glad to hear everything is going well. Do you see any areas that I should be focusing on developmentally that may otherwise prevent me from advancing?” Thoughts?

And, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    I listened to this episode this morning so my apologies if this was covered and I forgot it already. I’m in a similar situation and something that I have done is specifically state that I like having something to work on. Sort of like they’re doing me a favor by thinking of something.

    1. IL Jim P*

      as a manager myself I like how our organization has set up a specific coaching formula where we require our colleagues to talk about what they did well before we do and what they want to work on before we do

      It helps facilitate these discussions.

      Overall, I think sometimes people focus too much on job specific feedback when they’re looking at the development for new roles, which is kind of where I see this letter writer. She wants to take over a job of someone higher up at some point. She needs to be thinking about the skills that person needs to be successful and does she have them. Obviously assuming she does her current role well

  2. frustrated*

    What would you do if you’ve asked, and have gone nowhere? I like my boss as a person, we’ve worked together for 3+ years and he’s been my boss for the last year, but I’m really struggling. I think he sees me as the ‘throw everything her way and hope she doesn’t complain’ team member. After my ‘good not great’ review, in which I only exceeded expectations in a few areas, I sent an email saying:
    “Now that I’ve had a chance to chew it over: I appreciate the feedback. What can I work on or improve to exceed expectations? Could you give me an example or two of areas where I missed the mark? I’d like to provide as much value as I can to the team and to the dept.”

    ….I didn’t get a response. He acknowledged receiving the email, and that he was busy but would mull it over. This was in mid January. At the end of March, I approached our dept director with some frustrations. That convo became a little teary (on my end) as I was dealing with some upsetting personal issues, on top of my falling morale at work. He asked me to forward him the email and said he’d address it. I did, adding:
    “Here is the email that I sent to [boss].
    Despite my reaction in your office, I do truly appreciate constructive feedback and having an open dialogue about where to focus in improvements. I prefer to appear more composed than that at work.”

    That was 4 months ago and neither one of them has brought it up with me again. How can I move forward? I’m so frustrated that it seems no one above me cares about my development, and I’m not sure how to advocate for myself when I’ve tried and have been ignored.

      1. frustrated*

        Thanks for the response! It’s been an awful couple months (someone quit and they gave me her workload) so right now, I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat. I can hardly remember what I was working on when I first broached the subject in January. Once this dies down (knock on wood) I’ll give that a shot. I’m a longtime reader of your blog though, and my manager doesn’t seem to be the most effective. I suspect I won’t stay much longer in my role as a result, I’m already feeling the “he doesn’t care so why should I” attitude creeping in, and I don’t want to normalize that.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Given that context, give yourself permission not to worry about getting more feedback right now! You have enough on your plate for now; there will be time later!

  3. LQ*

    This was a great episode. I finally got some feedback from my boss recently after about a year of trying to get some. I finally tried the calling out specific items tactic and I got very good feedback from that. Now I just need to reinforce that it was a good thing and try hard to improve in that area so he wants to do it again. (And also because now I have something to dig in and improve in.)
    I also really like the presenting a question that doesn’t have a yes or no, but I tried that a lot and he would just…dodge the question every time.

  4. gawaine42*

    Most of my screen time is really screen time – I can’t do much of listening to audio – so I’m afraid I’m committing the cardinal sin of commenting based on everything but the podcast.

    However – one thing I’ve noticed is that some people who aren’t getting negative feedback, actually are, they’re just not appropriately realizing how overly diplomatic their boss is.

    1. LQ*

      This hasn’t been my experience. And while we see a lot of letters here and I know I’ve heard of a lot of people soft pedaling messages that are negative feedback…I think there is a lot of managers who don’t give enough feedback (the PS at the end of the episode was about this) and that there is a lack of stomach for giving critical feedback especially.

      If you think you’ve never gotten negative feedback but you’ve been on PIPs maybe listen a little harder, but if you’re a manager speak up and give more feedback.

      And be more open if you are receiving feedback. (I really hope someone is willing to call in and talk through receiving feedback that would be a great episode.)

    2. Nonna*

      Yeah, that has been my experience. My former boss wasn’t ever giving feedback really, more like hints. Or the start of a hint. I’d have loved some clear direction and actionable feedback, but at one point it was obvious I would never get it, and one of the reasons I moved on.

  5. Amber Rose*

    You know, you’d think this would be so simple. It should be. But it’s not. Also this is weirdly timed because this was my afternoon so far, trying to get useful feedback from my boss. I got some stuff anyway. I owe Alison for that actually, because since encountering this blog I have become pretty awesome at straightforward and blunt questions and stuff without feeling/being rude.

    Professionalism: getting to the point without stabbing everyone/yourself with said point.

  6. Minocho*

    I had a position where I took on some new duties on a rotational schedule. An email with instructions was forwarded to me. I followed the instructions every month when this duty came up. I received no feedback, and assumed things were going well. My boss was remote, and difficult to reach.

    Well, about 8 months in, I overheard a remote coworker who was in the office for the week complaining to another coworker about some part of these duties I was not doing correctly – and that she was sick of picking up my slack. She also said she’d complained to my boss about it.

    I never heard from any coworkers that I was doing this particular function incorrectly. I never heard from my boss that I was doing this function incorrectly. I checked the email instructions I’d received, and this aspect of the duties wasn’t mentioned. I went to a coworker (neither of the two above) I had a good rapport with, and he said that yes, this function was also part of the rotating duties. I then asked my boss about it, and he said that he had received complaints, and that I should be doing it the way I’d overheard coworkers mention. I immediately started doing it as instructed – and every review at that job, I got the feedback that I didn’t follow instructions well, because of that thing I was never informed of, trained on, or received feedback on in the beginning of the job.


    I have made it a point, ever since, to actively seek out constructive criticism. I don’t like messing up, or finding out I’m not doing as well at a duty as I think I am, but I work really hard to receive all feedback very well, because I know it’s much worse when people don’t let you know that you’re doing something incorrectly!!!

    1. Susan Calvin*

      What a complete bull**** situation! If they’d dinged you for not being proactive enough, or communicating enough, ok, sure, kind of a reach, but fine. But not following instructions you were never given? What even.

  7. OP*

    Hi there! OP here. Since I spoke to Alison, I have had a development discussion with my boss. After asking several direct questions per Alison’s advice, he told me the following – which was exciting. He said I’m excelling at my job and “couldn’t be happier.” I did manage to pry out of him that he wanted me to learn more about an area that we don’t really look at yet as a team. (Basically, go educate yourself on this and figure out whether the team needs to be adding a process for it.) I truly don’t know this area well, so that was good direction. Then he shared his thoughts that his biggest concern with me is that I would get bored and look to move on. That’s definitely not happening yet (but I suppose I could see it someday depending on how long I’m in this role?). I responded that the best way to avoid that would be to continue increasing my responsibilities / introducing me to new areas of work. He agreed!

    So, we’re going to do two things that we agreed to in the meeting:
    1. He’s reached out to the other executives to identify short-term projects that I can work on with their team in areas I don’t normally touch. Next week, for my first project, I’m going to do a couple day project with the IT group (with which I have very limited experience).
    2. Our parent company has a global executive development program to which my subsidiary company has never sent anyone. The stated goal of the program is to develop the company’s next C-suite. Not only has he now nominated me for it, but he let me know that he tried last year; I just hadn’t been in my role long enough to qualify. It would have been motivating to know at the time, but I’m happy to hear it now!

    Overall, while I still didn’t get tons of specific actionable feedback, I think asking these questions got us into a much deeper conversation about my future here. Between the cross-functional projects and executive program, I think I’ll be able to develop stronger relationships across the company too – which is always a nice tool to have for any promotion.

    Thanks, Alison!

  8. DryRoasted*

    Thanks for posting. I read the transcript. I am one of those people that for probably the first 10 years of my career I got defensive. Through lots of therapy and lots of reading on this site I realized it was tied to two things. Doing well in school my whole life and my perfectionist tendencies. I would be happy to talk about it

  9. Amber Barnett*

    I know firsthand how never getting any constructive criticism can go so horribly wrong. I took a part-time job when my seasonal position wasn’t able to keep me full-time, and when the management changed, so did my schedule (I’d been hired for opening prep at a sandwich place). I asked the new manager over and over what I needed to improve on to get back on the shift I’d been hired for, and the only feedback I ever got was “You’re too slow”, but no specifics as to what I was slow on, and without the knowledge I had that the old manager would work an extra hour unpaid before her shift to get things done, where I wasn’t willing to do that.

    It came to a head when I had a question about my paycheck, and asked for our owner’s phone number to see about getting it answered, since managers didn’t handle the finances at all, leading to this new manager firing me for “undermining her authority” by asking for that phone number. (I never even got the phone number, just asking for it made her sack me.)

    Thankfully, I’m old enough to recognize a bad, HORRIBLY inexperienced manager when I meet one, because otherwise, I might have had a complete breakdown over my own work performance. As it stands, I still had to go back to my seasonal job and ask them if they’d thought I had any issues with undermining authority, just because I’m paranoid in general and that didn’t help. Thankfully, they told me that the manager who fired me had to be crazy, so I went into my next job hunt confident that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. That’s borne out in that I’ve been hired at a new place, one of the two I’ve wanted to work at since moving to my current location!

  10. Jo*

    I remembered a good tip while listening to this episode which might help get round bosses who are scared of giving feedback – ask for ‘advice’ not ‘feedback’.

    Wherever I read this they said this stops people feeling so on guard and that it makes me them feel more confident and flattered.

    The context I read it in was talking about asking for input from those below you as asking them for feedback can be weird because of the power dynamic.

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