A reader asks: “I’m concerned that I'm not getting the feedback that I need to grow and improve in my job and ultimately move to the next career level. My manager is a nice person and seems happy with my work, but I rarely hear any specifics of what I could be doing better. A few times I've tried asking straight out for feedback, but he was just pretty vague and said everything was fine. How can I get real feedback out of him that I can use in my development?”
Part of the problem – maybe the whole problem – is that most people, even managers, aren't very good at providing developmental feedback. If there’s an obvious problem, they can address that (and even then, they don’t always do that!), but a lot of managers find it much more challenging to identify ways that someone doing a good job could do an even better one.
So your job is to find ways to make it easier for him to think through the information you’re looking for. There are a few ways to elicit that:
Schedule a meeting with your boss and just be straightforward. Say something like, “I really value feedback about my work and what I could do better, and I would be hugely grateful to hear your candid thoughts on ways I could be more effective.” If his response is a vague “everything’s fine,” then narrow your question down: “What are two things that I could focus on doing better?” Or even, “If you could wave a magic wand over my head and change something about how I approach my job, what would it be?”
Ask for feedback connected to specific pieces of work by having "mini-debriefs” after a project is done. For instance, you could say something like, “I felt like I had some trouble convincing people of ___ in that meeting. Do you have advice on how I could have approached it differently?” Or, ”Do you have thoughts on what we could have done differently on Project Z to have gotten better results?” (Ask this right after the project that you managed or were heavily involved with wraps up. And note that “we” here really means you.)
Talk to your manager about what your career goals are and ask for his advice on what you can do to make yourself best suited to the roles you’d like to take on. What are the skills you should work on developing in order to take that next step, and what’s his advice on what projects might help you do that? For instance, you might explain that you want to get more experience in leadership roles and ask what he thinks it would take for you to be able to do that and what he sees potentially standing in the way.
With a manager who’s already reluctant to give feedback, the worst thing you can do is to react badly if you hear criticism you don’t like or don’t agree with. If you get defensive or upset, you’ll make it harder for your manager to give you feedback in the future. So remember to stay pleasant and professional, and even thank him for the feedback. Show that you value it and that you won’t respond badly, and you'll be more likely to hear more in the future.