Unearthing Buried Feedback


Most managers realize that giving feedback is an important part of their job. But not all managers are skilled at providing feedback. Some make vague comparisons, mistakenly apply labels as feedback, and others just hint and hope you'll get the message. Esther Derby offers advice on how to probe for the information that will help you understand your manager's concerns when he doesn't state them clearly.

When managers provide vague feedback, you can only guess and wonder what he actually means. But that's not an effective strategy: even if your manager isn't good at giving feedback, he will expect you to act on what he's said. You have a choice to ignore it (not a career-enhancing option), walk away shaking your head, or probe for the buried information that could actually help you.

Sue, a project manager, told me about some confusing feedback she received from her manager:

During her yearly review, Sue's manager told her she should be more like Martha, one of her co-workers.

Sue asked her manager, "What does Martha do that makes her effective?"

"She's jolly," her manager explained. "She doesn't take anything too seriously. She just jokes about problems."

"So what you're saying is that Martha is effective because she diffuses problems with humor?" Sue queried.

"Yeah, that's it; she gets everyone laughing. And people who are laughing aren't worried about project risks. On your last project, the sponsor called me to ask what I was doing to help manage the risks. I don't like to receive calls like that!"

That answer told Sue something about what her manager values: untroubled project owners (but not necessarily untroubled projects). Had Sue not probed for clarification, she would have left the review with no idea what aspect of Martha's personality or performance her manager wants her to emulate. However, Sue chose not to divert attention from project risks. She did work out an agreement with her project sponsor to let her approach her manager with project risk information.

When you receive vague or confusing feedback-or think someone may be hinting around trying to give you feedback-start with a non-challenging opening, one that reassures him that you are trying to understand his point of view. Try something like: "I want to understand your concern so I can decide what to do about it." Then ask questions to extract useful information.

Here are three common patterns of vague feedback and questions that can help extract useful information.

Many ineffective feedback givers label people rather than describe specific behavior or results. This usually backfires, because when people hear a label "you are sloppy" the first impulse is to reject the label.

Even though it's natural to become defensive, use the opportunity to understand where your manager's dissatisfaction lies. These questions will help you delve deeper into the problem:

  • What have you seen and heard that will help me understand your assessment?
  • Would you give me some specific examples to help me understand the issues you see?
  • What have you seen about how ____________ is affecting my results?
  • Can you share your thoughts about how ___________ impacts my effectiveness?

Comparatives with Nothing to Compare Against
Some managers think simply telling a person he must "do better" is helpful. But again, it leaves the feedback receiver wondering "At what?" and "How much better would satisfy you?"

Probe for specific information about what needs improvement and what standard of performance your manager is looking for. Ask him:

  • What aspects of my performance aren't meeting your expectations?
  • Would you give me examples of when my performance didn't meet your expectations?
  • What areas of my performance do meet your expectations?
  • Can we discuss what I need to do to meet your expectations? (If your boss answers "No," start looking for a new job right away.)

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