Article

NextGen Know-How: How to Ask Your Manager for Feedback

wooden blocks with silhouettes of faces communicating feedback to each other
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

4 minutes

Asking specific questions will lead to more detailed, actionable and honest answers about your performance.

In a recent leadership program session, I was sharing strategies and tools for providing feedback to employees when one of the participants asked me a common question: How do I ask my manager for feedback? This leader said her VP rarely gives feedback on her performance, and she is often left wondering how she is doing.

This is not surprising, since one of the top reasons employees leave organizations is not getting meaningful feedback that will help them grow, develop and improve. When I ask participants in my workshops how many of them would want to know if their manager had information that could improve their performance, everyone always raises their hands. Employees want feedback—they crave feedback—yet most leaders are not good at giving it. And many times the feedback that is given is too general to be meaningful or actionable. For example, telling an employee they are doing a great job may temporarily give them a boost of confidence, but it doesn’t share anything meaningful that the employee should keep doing.

There are many reasons why leaders aren’t intentional about providing feedback. The most common reasons they cite are lack of time and discomfort. Leaders are juggling many projects and direct reports, and sometimes feedback doesn’t feel like a priority. Other times leaders aren’t sure how to frame constructive feedback, so they avoid the conversation altogether.

If your manager has not prioritized feedback, there is an effective way to directly ask for it that is comfortable, respectful and will increase the chances of the feedback being more detailed and actionable.

Be Specific When Seeking Feedback

The best way to ask for feedback is to be very narrow and specific with your questions.

Think of it this way:

general/vague question=general/vague answer

specific question=specific answer

Avoid these general questions:

  • What feedback can you give me on my performance?
  • What can I improve?
  • How am I doing?

Each of these questions are very broad and can even be overwhelming for your manager to answer. Your manager might be thinking about five to 10 things she can tell you but doesn't really know how to frame her answer. In my experience, such general questions tend to be met with a general answer: “You’re doing a great job”.

One of my clients recently asked her CEO for feedback, and the CEO was vague and general with her answer. It seemed that she didn't want to provide specific information for fear of hurting her employee’s feelings. My client really wanted the information so she could learn how to improve and excel even further in her career. I suggested she ask two specific questions:

  • What is my biggest strength, and how can I leverage it better?
  • If there was one thing that would help me improve my performance, what would it be?

These questions are easier to answer because they are more specific.

I suggest giving your manager time to reflect and come back to you with their feedback, as the tendency of most managers is to be general when they are put on the spot. For example, you might ask your manager in your next meeting or by email:

I’m thinking about my professional goals going forward, and I’d like to get your feedback on my current performance. What is my biggest strength, and how can I leverage it better?

If there was one thing that would help me improve my performance, what would it be? I’d really like to hear your suggestions at our next meeting.

After receiving the vague feedback from her CEO, my client emailed her manager the next month with more specific questions. Here is what she wrote in her email:

As you know, I am taking a leadership development course, and one of the assignments is to get specific feedback from our direct manager. You can either email the answers to me or we can talk about it in our next meeting.

  • What is my biggest strength, and how can I leverage it better?
  • If there was one thing that would help me improve my performance, what would it be?

I really appreciate your feedback as I continue to focus on my leadership development.

 A week later, my client was excited to share that the specific questions approach worked. Her CEO emailed her specific information on what she was doing well and one area she could improve upon. In their next meeting, they discussed the feedback, and it was an easy, open discussion. My client got the information she needed by setting up her request in a way that was easy to answer and not overwhelming. Most importantly, she now knows specifically what she should keep doing and what she needs to improve upon to prepare for the next level in her leadership journey.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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