Some managers can't bring themselves to say things straight out. They make vague references and global statements, hoping you'll take the hint. One tester named Julie reported that her manager said, "We should all make good use of our time" during her performance review. While Julie agreed with the sentiment, she didn't realize until later that her manager took issue with how she was using her time at the office.
A vague, mom-and-apple-pie statement may be masking dissatisfaction. If you get this sweet-nothing treatment, learn to cut through the filling to find out what's really eating away at your manager.
During Julie's next one-on-one, she was primed with questions to help her see behind the hint:
- What do you see that tells you people aren't making good use of their time?
- Is there a specific observation about the way I use my time I should know about?
When her boss continued answering with a vague response, Julie followed up by asking, "Are you concerned with the results I'm achieving?"
With that prompting, Julie's manager stated his real concern: Julie was spending time talking to the developers and her manager felt her time would be better used running more tests.
When Julie explained that she was talking to the developers about adding program stubs to help with early testing, her manager agreed that maybe talking to the developers was a good use of time after all.
There's Always Useful Information
One manager told a staffer—whom we'll call Kendra-that Kendra didn't respect him.
Kendra kept her cool, took a deep breath, and asked her manager what she'd done that made him feel that way. Kendra's manager grew red in the face and leaned over his desk. "You're doing it again!" he said, raising his voice. "You're questioning me!"
Clearly, Kendra's strategy of asking questions to extract information wasn't going to work here. But there's still information to glean from this manager's feedback and his response. Kendra filled in the sentence to make some sense of her manager's comment:
"(I believe) you don't respect me (because I can't believe anyone respects me.)"
Kendra's manager was so insecure that he couldn't tolerate any questioning of his authority—even questions for clarification. And that's all the information Kendra needed to start looking for a better boss.
When you encounter vague or confusing feedback, remember to breathe. Breathing brings oxygen to the brain that helps us think clearly in times of stress-and receiving feedback can be stressful, especially when the feedback is garbled, confusing, or feels hurtful. Keep your voice and demeanor as neutral as you can, and ask questions to unearth useful information.
Finally, if you are still unable to get useful information, remember that feedback is about the giver's perception of you—not the truth about you. You always have the right to seek clarification, to ask for time to digest the information, and a choice on how to respond to feedback.