In the dark at work? How to ask for more feedback

May 22, 2015, 2:08 PM UTC
job interview
Business people being measured by large hand holding tape measure
Photograph by Gary Waters—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Dear Annie: I liked your article about why performance appraisals may not be very accurate, but I find myself with a different problem, which is that I’m not getting any feedback at all. My boss usually gives me, and everyone else on my team, some vague instructions at the beginning of each assignment and then leaves the rest up to us.

In a way, it’s flattering that he trusts us to figure things out, but this is only my second job out of college and I would really appreciate a little more guidance. Yet he’s always so busy that, when I ask, I feel like I’m bothering him. (Last time I tried to speak with him, he rolled his eyes when he saw me in the doorway.) What’s the best way to ask for some feedback about how I’m doing, without seeming needy? — Dancing in the Dark

Dear D.D.: Interesting that you use the word “needy,” with its whiny negative connotations, when what you’re asking for is actually perfectly reasonable.

Giving regular constructive feedback is “a big part of what your boss signed up for when he took this job,” says Rob Bogosian, a principal at consulting firm RVB Associates and co-author of a new book, Breaking Corporate Silence: How High-Influence Leaders Create Cultures of Voice. “Managers have nothing more important to do with their time than give it to the people who need it.”

At the same time, however, Bogosian’s research over the past 20 years shows that the people in the middle ranks of companies have gotten progressively more overloaded. “‘Lean and mean’ organizations have often put more work on team leaders’ plates than they can handle,” he observes. “So giving feedback tends to get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.”

Unfortunately, that runs counter to the expectations of Millennials, who have been conditioned by technology and upbringing to expect more frequent feedback than older workers.

Consider: More than twice as many employees aged 18 to 34 say they’d like feedback “a few times a week” than Gen Xers or Boomers who say the same, according to a poll of about 1,000 workers by people-management software firm Ultimate Software; and 20% of Millennials would like weekly feedback, versus 10% of Gen Xers and 7% of Boomers. (Asked how often they’d like their performance appraised, a tiny minority in each age group — 2% of Millennials and Boomers, and 3% of Gen Xers — answered “Never.”)

Given all that, how can you ask without feeling that you’re “bothering” your boss, as you put it? Bogosian and his co-author, Christine Mockler Casper, recommend three steps. First, it helps if you can offer some insights about how your projects are going that “might help your boss do his job better,” notes Casper, who is president of Boston-based consulting and training firm Communication, Motivation & Management. “Managers often have blind spots, so if you can bring timely, useful information to the discussion, you’re less likely to seem ‘needy.’”

Then, be specific. What are the two or three most important items where you could use some guidance? Write them down. Besides increasing the odds that you’ll get what you need from him, “preparing specific questions, rather than just asking something general like, ‘How am I doing?’ shows that you respect his time,” Bogosian says.

Third, “check your assumptions about why your boss has been too busy to talk to you,” Bogosian suggests. “Maybe you just happened to approach him at moments where he really was in the middle of something that couldn’t be interrupted.” To avoid that, schedule an appointment, and send an email beforehand that briefly lists your specific questions, so he has a chance to think about them in advance.

One more thought: Bosses sometimes dread having to voice reservations about people’s performance because of how they’ve reacted to criticism in the past. The only correct response to a less-than-stellar review, Casper says, is to “describe briefly what you plan to do to fix whatever the problem is. Again, be specific. Tell what actions you will take, and when.

“Prepare to control how you react in the moment if your team leader does say something negative about your work,” she adds. “It’s part of exercising emotional intelligence that, even if you do take a comment personally and feel wounded by it, you vent those feelings when you get home in the evening — not in front of your boss.” Good luck.

Talkback: Do you get enough performance feedback in your job? How often do you think would be ideal? Leave a comment below.

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