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.)

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.

In Summary
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.

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