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Managing Up: Drilling Down on My Boss's Negative Feedback

Photo Credit: Tim Gouw/Unsplash

At the end of my weekly one-on-one with my boss, I was gathering my belongings to leave when she stopped me. “Wait, there’s one more thing!” she said. Her tone was cheerful, but I knew the news would not be. My boss explained that she wanted to give me “a little feedback,” specifically about my “professional presence.” When I asked her what she meant, she said, “I don’t remember what you said, or when, but I felt like you were kind of ehhhh after Chris said something in the meeting.”

She couldn’t remember what Chris said or what exactly I did, but I knew what she was getting at. This wasn’t the first time she had given me feedback like this. This had actually been going on for months. Every meeting, every email, she had something to say about how I could improve my “professional presence.”

I felt like I was running a race in water, when everyone else was on land.

At first, it didn’t bother me. I’ve always been very self-reflective and committed to personal development. I took the feedback seriously, using it as a launching pad to become the professional I wanted to be. After months of reading books, taking workshops, talking to other professional women I admired, and even witnessing my own growth, I was still feeling defeated because the feedback kept coming.

I felt like I was running a race in water, when everyone else was on land.

That’s when I realized that the feedback was still coming because my boss wasn’t actually giving me any feedback; not legitimate feedback to work with, anyway. The “feedback” I was receiving was vague and subjective. Once I figured out that I wasn’t being given the right ingredients to really grow, I knew I had to manage up.

Improving with Critical Feedback

From then on, when she gave me feedback, I listened closely, took notes, assured her I was committed to growth, and let her know that I needed a bit more information so that I could make meaningful transformation. To get that information, I asked her several open-ended questions to clarify and understand three things.

First, the situation — where were we and what were we doing? Who were the other players and what were they doing? If it was in a meeting, at which part of the meeting? Of course, I didn’t need a 20-minute description, but I did need a full understanding of the context.

Second, I asked her to get specific about my action(s). I needed to know exactly what I did and how I did it. Once I had a full understanding of my actions, it would be easier to recognize this behavior in the future.

My last inquiry, and possibly the most important, was about the impact. What impact did my action(s) have on other people or the culture at large? How did/do my actions impact the big picture? This is key because this is where behavior and intention connect. By understanding the big picture of my actions, I have a more complete understanding of why a change might be for the better, either for my relationships with my colleagues or the betterment of the organization. Understanding our impact is what creates change.

My boss had the best of intentions for me, but she lacked the leadership skills to really coach me. But just because she’s technically my manager doesn’t mean she’s perfect, and it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t “coach up.” By pressing her to provide direct and actionable corrective feedback and not just her opinions, we were both getting the feedback we needed.

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