And by “good” I mean useful feedback, not happy-smiley-rainbows feedback. Good feedback is helpful, timely, actionable. It is a proffered hand up rather than a kick in the pants. If we are wise, we let it make us better people.
But what if the person who should be providing that feedback doesn’t, can’t, or won’t? Most likely, if we aren’t getting the feedback we need, it is because people don’t know we want it, or people don’t know how to give it. As someone whose job it is to give feedback, let me tell you a secret: we are scared. We are frightened of the emotions people have while sitting in our office chairs, uncomfortable with the act of sitting face to face with someone and passing judgement on their behavior. It isn’t very nice or brave, but it’s true for many of us.
But our discomfort isn’t your problem to solve. You should receive helpful feedback at work, regardless of how difficult it is for your supervisor (or manager or colleague or whatever) to provide it. So here are some steps you can take to help your managers help you.
Ask for what you want. If you want more feedback, ask for it. You can ask for more frequent feedback, or more detailed feedback, or feedback on a topic you don’t generally receive feedback on. The more thought you put into what you want feedback on, and the more thoughtfully you ask for it, the more time and thought your supervisor is likely to put into it.
Schedule an appointment. Use a little behavioral science on your boss: make it easy, make it the default. Send an appointment, attach any documents you want to discuss, and if your boss can’t make the time as scheduled, reschedule immediately. It’s not pushy, its organized!
Manage your own anxiety and defensiveness. Feedback is really hard to take sometimes. It can hit us right in our softest spots. Two things I do when I am looking for feedback that may be hard to hear:
Imagine receiving sharp feedback beforehand. I imagine the interaction, and let myself feel the emotions first in the safety of my own office. It helps me manage my emotions better later.
Consciously drop my defenses. I try to go into feedback meetings thinking about how to accept what is given, not how to protect my tender spots. I find that how I hold my body shapes how open my brain will be. I try to drop my arms, unclench my hands, unwind my crossed legs. I’m not joking – it can help.
Go away, then come back. If you receive feedback that is distressing and you don’t think you can constructively take in more, excuse yourself. Then set up another meeting to continue. Come with a list of follow up questions.
If the feedback is not actionable, probe. There are topics we don’t know how to talk about, and we resort to jargon and euphemisms. If you don’t know exactly what your supervisor is describing, keep asking. Try the old reflecting technique:
“So I hear you saying I should listen more than I talk on the call with the field office. Is that right?”
Or, if your supervisor really isn’t giving specifics that you understand, ask them to give examples of what they would like to see you do:
“I’m not sure I understand how I can act on this. Could you give me an example of what that would look like?”
Look around you. Feedback doesn’t have to come from your supervisor, and if you aren’t getting helpful feedback from him or her – and even if you are – consider that other people around you have different perspectives. Ask other colleagues to help. This is most useful when you have something specific to ask for feedback on. Ask someone “how am I doing at my job?” and they’ll freeze, or give you some pabulum about doing fine. Ask someone “is this piece of writing clear?” or “could you give me some feedback on my delivery of that presentation?” and you are likely to get something more actionable.