My manager is too busy to give me feedback, what should I do?


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The only way to get better at your job is to have your manager shine a light on the areas where you can improve…right? Maybe not so much. In this week’s Good@Work column, all-around boss babe Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—explains why, when it comes to feedback, you should be careful what you wish for.

Question:

I feel like I’m doing really well at work, but always looking to improve. I know my manager is super busy and has a ton of projects and meetings on her plate but I’m dying for some constructive feedback and don’t have the heart to put another thing on her plate, especially since she’s already told me I’m doing awesome. Any advice?

Answer:

Let’s set your boss aside for a few minutes and focus on you. I wonder why you’re so anxious about getting feedback. I know we’re trained to believe that being able to take constructive (which means negative) feedback is the key to finding success at work in 2019, but actually, feedback isn’t always that helpful.

Research shows that employees react much more strongly to negative feedback than praise, and negative feedback can have a significant effects on employees’ productivity. If you had this meeting with your manager and she was able to tell you what you’re not doing well, how would you feel? Would you go back to your desk happy and ready to maximize profits for your company? Or would you go back to your desk and Gchat with your friends about how much your boss sucks and fixate on these conversations all day and drag yourself into a vortex of negativity that you would have avoided had no one been invited to tell you that your PowerPoint slides for that meeting were actually kind of crappy?

I’d probably do that latter. I have done the latter. We all have. We’re just not primed as human beings to be told we’re doing something badly and feel inspired to do it differently to please another person at work. It doesn’t make us “less than” as workers, it makes us human. I wonder if your boss knows this, which is why the only feedback she’s given you so far is that you’re “doing awesome.” She might not feel comfortable telling you what you’re doing poorly. She might not know how to tell you you’re doing something poorly without it sounding like an insult. So, she might be avoiding the conversation entirely. In which case, no wonder you have anxiety about asking her for the meeting. She probably has anxiety about it, too.

We’re just not primed as human beings to be told we’re doing something badly and feel inspired to do it differently to please another person at work.

Perhaps you feel confused about how well you’re doing at work because you sense that, in at least some ways, you’re not doing what the company wants. There are two kinds of workplace feedback: direct and indirect. Direct feedback is the kind you get when Boss sits you down and says, “I like your plan for the company’s Instagram feed,” and indirect is what you absorb from the workplace ether. Maybe you think you need direct feedback from your overwhelmed, anxiety-prone manager when what you really need is to just acknowledge the cues all around you. Did you hear that your boss’s boss had certain feelings about the company Instagram feed, which you manage? Do you get the sense that your boss just isn’t happy with how fast the account is growing? Usually we get a feeling that someone’s not happy with something before they tell us they’re not happy with something.

To tap into this indirect feedback, imagine yourself in a lotus pose in the middle of your office, in a meditative state, all those unspoken signals penetrating little pores in your skull. When you open your eyes, you will have internalized the indicators of your standing at work that have been floating around you for as long as you’ve been there. And you’ll be ready to write down the three biggest things you think you could be doing better and how you’ll get there. (Don’t write down more than three, that would be both cruel and overwhelming.) After you go through this exercise, do you still need to have the meeting with your boss? Is there anything you can imagine her telling you that would be more helpful than this?

Back to your original question of whether or not you should schedule the meeting: I’d say no. In an ideal world, your boss would sit you down once a quarter and tell you a list of things you’re doing fantastically. Research shows that employees perform better when they get positive feedback about their performance because everyone likes an ego boost but also because we know to keep doing the things that our bosses like. In order for these conversations to be productive, Boss has to really prepare for them, and not go through the motions as part of a mandated annual performance review that everyone hates—another task to be checked off the list.

Instead of having a formal meeting with your boss where she’ll feel like you’re putting her under a spotlight, can you do something more relaxed with her that won’t feel like another obligation in her day? Can you get lunch or coffee or an after-work drink? (That’s a drink, as in one—you don’t need more than that at work functions.) Work will naturally come up in the conversation. You’ll probably learn about what she’s worried about. You can offer to help her with those things. You can also talk about your lives and your dogs and your favorite restaurants. Having a professional relationship with her outside of the office will probably make your professional relationship inside the office easier, and, if you still really want the negative feedback, she may be more likely to take the meeting and give it to you when you ask for it. Just don’t ask for it more than twice a year. You don’t want to commit the signature millennial office sin of seeming entitled.

Amy Odell headshotAmy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.

Follow her on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and sign up for her newsletter here.

Have a career question for Amy? Write her at amyodellbooks@gmail.com.

More Good@Work:
I feel like I get along better with my male bosses—Is it just me, or is it gender bias?
Help! I have a miserable boss—what do I do?
Did I sell myself short when I negotiated my salary?

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