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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Smart Ways Successful People Respond to Feedback

employee receiving feedback from boss

Have you ever been given candid feedback from your boss about how your work’s going? As more and more companies place value on the performance review and improved communication, the answer is probably yes. And yet, people—regardless of title—tend to dread this one-on-one conversation.

I get it. No one ever really looks forward to receiving negative feedback (a typical component of the employee-employer discussion), but learning how to work with constructive criticism is a skill worth mastering. Getting insight about how you’re doing and how you could improve is so essential to professional development, so it really shouldn’t be something that makes you anxious.

Although compliments about your performance tend to be welcomed more readily, if they’re vague or generic-sounding, you walk away with not a lot to work with. If you want to excel, grow, and be successful, then you’ll want to make sure that you’re getting the best commentary as possible.

The scenarios outlined below will help you elicit useful feedback from your manager that you can actually apply to your career.

1. Vague Feedback

Your boss says, “You’re doing great, keep up the good work.”

You say, “I’m glad to hear that. What are some ways I take on more responsibility?”

This is, perhaps, the easiest comment to give an employee who hasn’t done anything poorly—but who hasn’t necessarily done anything to stand out either, and it’s not very helpful. If you want to get something valuable out of the meeting, don’t just say thank you; gently press your manager for more. By asking to take on more items, you’ll see whether he steers the conversation back toward your current position or opens up about potential projects you could contribute to. If it’s the former, it may mean you need some more time to nail the duties you have before adding anything else to your plate.

2. Empty Feedback

Your boss says, “I’m impressed that 98% of anonymous evaluations say your performance was satisfactory.”

You say, “Wow, that’s a great record so far. Do you have any insight on why the other 2% may have been less than satisfied? What specifically can I do to try to increase that rating for next quarter? I’d love to hear your suggestions.”

When your manager has a slew of team members to oversee, she’s probably not sweating the small stuff. Instead, she praises you for achieving a high rate among your colleagues and doesn’t feel the need to harp on the 2% who had less than stellar things to say about your performance. But, because you should always aim to grow, focusing on that deficit will benefit you more in the long run than taking your compliment and heading back to your desk. Plus, by actively looking for small ways to grow, you’ll show her you care about improving.

3. Negative Feedback

Your boss says, “I’d like you to work on [insert whatever it is you need to work on].”

You say, “I appreciate that feedback. Can you help me create a plan of attack for addressing this issue head on? Which qualities do you feel are most essential to my growth in this area?”

If your boss is coming to you with a specific area or item that needs improving, you want to get as much information as possible. Acknowledge that you understand what he’s saying and why he’s saying it—unless you think the critique is unfounded, in which case you should politely ask for an example to be clear about prioritizing the problem.

Before the conversation wraps, schedule a follow-up meeting to address the plan and analyze how you’re progressing and improving. Do that and you’ll have successfully turned this into a two-way conversation that probably wouldn’t have occurred if you’d just nodded and replied, “OK.” Being open to your manager’s suggestions without getting defensive is a must.

4. Generic Feedback

Your boss says, “You meet deadlines, are a natural leader, and you have solid ideas about productivity and time management.”

You say “I appreciate that feedback. I’ll certainly take those comments into account. While we’re here though, I was hoping I could also speak to you about [insert item you want to address]. Is there anything I can do to assist with that and take something off your plate?”

She’s given you feedback, but it’s limiting and generic. There’s not much you can work with when you receive these types of run-of-the-mill comments, which is why you always need to be prepared. If you don’t have one-on-one time often, view the meeting as a rare opportunity to discuss bigger-picture issues. Make it clear that you’re open to taking on more responsibility and that you’d welcome a chance to make her life easier. Once she starts talking about her needs and goals, you can fill in the blanks with ideas to contribute.

Brainstorming new responsibilities can also help you transition the discussion toward your own goals and aspirations. Once the conversation has moved toward ramping up a certain area, you can ask questions such as “Where do you see me fitting into this initiative within the next year?” to get more concrete details about your growth trajectory.

Most managers use slightly different criteria to evaluate their teams, but no matter what your boss says in a performance review, you can help determine where the conversation goes by asking specific questions that focus on the how, the why, and the when, ultimately helping you excel in your role.