Where Do You Stand?

Marisa Keegan Communication, Employee Coaching, HR (& Life!) Advice, Marisa Keegan


An old boss of mine truly believed that if he gave out too much positive recognition it would dilute the impact, thus making it ‘less powerful’ when he did give it out. The unfortunate part was that the lack of positive feedback turned me into a wee-bit of a lunatic (causing me to second guess my every move, agonize over my standing within the company, and waste time worrying that I wasn’t living up to the expectation he had for me). He once justified the lack of feedback by stating that all of the work he piled on my plate was his way of telling me I was a good employee. Ah, the disconnect.

The FOT Mail Bag question earlier this week and a recent private coaching session really got me thinking about how we can help employees get an accurate feel for where they stand in the eyes of their managers.

In a perfect world all managers would… oh, I don’t know, talk to their employees (aka; initiate communication channels where continuous feedback flows naturally, everyone knows when they’re succeeding and where they need to improve, instant feedback is the norm, and employees never waste energy wondering what their boss thinks of them). But, in order for that to work, managers would actually have to partake in some very difficult conversations, and one thing I know to be true is that managers suck at starting the tough conversations.

But employees still want to know where they stand so when I coach them I give them the following advice for how to get feedback from their boss:

  • Be your own advocate. If you aren’t getting face time with your boss and don’t know where you stand, then ask for a meeting. I’m a fan of ongoing meetings but only if they’re worth everyone’s time involved. Don’t leave it up to your manager to have an agenda – have your own. This requires knowing what you need from your manager and going into the meeting with a goal to get that information out of him/her.
  • Ask the tough questions. Every once in awhile, I make sure to ask my boss the following question at the end of our meetings, “If there was one thing you wish I would start doing or stop doing, what would that be?” The first time I asked my boss this he turned bright red, but after sitting there for a minute he gave me a really candid answer.
  • Be prepared for tough answers. You know the question I posed in the last bullet? Well, every time I ask it I find myself holding my breath because sometimes the truth hurts. You mean I’m not perfect?! When you ask someone for candid advice it’s NOT OKAY to debate them. Listen to their response and thank them for being so candid. Period.
  • Become a fisherman. Believe me, I hate when people fish for compliments just as much as the next guy, but if your manager is anything like mine was in the job I mentioned in the opening paragraph you might need to fish just to keep your sanity. My tactic was to bring up a recent project I’d completed and ask him what his overall thoughts were on the project. From there I would ask him what I had done that he really liked (enter one sentence positive answer from manager). Then, on days where I didn’t want to seem like a needy fisherman, I’d ask him what aspects of the project he would have liked me to have done differently (enter 10 minute rant from manager). If I was okay with seeming like a needy fisherman that day then I’d end with the one sentence positive answer.

If employees become less fearful of advocating for themselves, asking tough questions, and insisting (through asking tough questions) that communication channels be opened, they’re much more likely to know where they stand within a company.

Do you have any other advice for how employees can get honest, candid feedback from their managers?

What if you’re on a team where the manager just isn’t willing to give candid feedback even when asked directly?