How to get helpful feedback from your boss

Don't let a lack of preparation on your boss's part stop you. There are a myriad of ways to get feedback on your performance. You deserve to know how you are doing and where you stand.

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It happens all too frequently. When I was an HR manager employees would talk in my office at performance appraisal time and ask me how to interpret this feedback from their bosses.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

If that is the sum total of the feedback you get, you can leave frustrated. Sigh.

You don't have to give up just because you got an unhelpful answer.

There are strategies you can use to get what you need. If this question doesn't work, “Can you be more specific?” Here are some other questions you can try.

The questions are grouped together in pairs because you want to ask them together. You’ll notice they are balanced to get feedback on both strengths and development needs. Whether it’s in the moment or in a planned meeting you can ask:

  1. If we think about (task/activity/meeting/event/project), what do like about what I did on that?
  2. And then, (if we think about the ___ task, etc.) if you had to name one thing I could do to improve my performance, what would it be?
  1. What’s one thing you like about how I get my job done?
  2. If you had to name one thing I could do to improve how I get my job done, what would it be?
  1. What kind of feedback have you received about my performance?
  2. Is there someone else you would recommend I approach to get feedback?
  1. What’s one thing you like about how I work with others?
  2. If you had to name one thing I could do to improve how I work with others, what would it be?
  1. At this phase of my career, what do you consider is important to develop? Where do you think I am on this?
  2. What do you see that I am already good at that I can leverage in the future?

Choose only one set of questions that you think will work best. You don’t want to ask them all.

Lastly, I can already hear what’s going on in your head. “I could use all these questions, Mary. I still may not get a good answer.”

When you are still not getting a good answer, there are still options.

Keep in mind that you can ask for feedback at any time. You can say you are being proactive.

Drop your boss an email up front. Tell him or her you want to set aside some time to get some feedback “because you want to make sure you doing what's expected.”

You can say you would rather be on top of this than wait until the once-a-year thing. Then offer a couple of questions you would like to discuss. This gives the boss a chance to prepare.

When you think you’ve done all you can, try this.

The boss still may not be prepared when you meet. He or she still may not have anything substantive to offer you. You can suggest rescheduling to give him or her more time, i.e. to show you are not giving up. You have to decide if that is going to be productive.

You are not always going to get what you want. How your boss responds (or doesn’t) tells you what to expect from this point on. It can be disappointing, but at least you have more information. Now you can decide how you want to proceed.

At a minimum, keep track of your own accomplishments on a regular basis. In this way you are writing your own version of your performance review. Include your objectives and how you are meeting them.

You can then meet with your boss, say quarterly, to review what you’ve documented. This can get the boss's attention. When it’s on paper, even if you wrote it, the boss now has something to agree with, or not. This can finally prompt feedback. (Oh, and send what you’ve written ahead of time to allow for review.)

Be creative to get what you need.

When all else fails, don’t hesitate to call on a trusted mentor or peer for feedback. You can use the same strategies outlined here. Choose someone who is more likely to be responsive and helpful. Apply your our resourcefulness and persistence to get what you need.

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