How to Find Out What the Boss Really Thinks of You
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Next up, an article from the June 28th issue of the Wall Street Journal titled "How to Find Out What the Boss Really Thinks of You By Sue Shellenbarger
Do you ever wonder what the boss really thinks about you?
Finding out can be a difficult and delicate task. While most people fear the overly blunt, critical boss, an overly nice or evasive boss can be just as frustrating.
In a previous job in software sales, Mark Phillips of Boulder, Colo., hit sales targets for two years but got little feedback—and no sense of when he might be promoted. He confronted his boss bluntly, saying, "I need to know an answer." But his boss simply told Mr. Phillips to "trust that the boss had his best interests at heart. Mr. Phillips accepted another job the next day.
Looking back, Mr. Phillips, now chief executive officer of HireEducation Inc., an affiliate of the Sanford Rose Associates executive-search network, says he could have been less confrontational. If he had asked more questions and tried to understand the boss’s viewpoint, he might have stayed and "it could have worked out very well," he says.
Some managers fear they will anger employees or hurt their feelings if they are too open. Others "worry that the person will go to HR and get into a big kerfuffle," says Peggy Klaus, a Berkeley, Calif., executive trainer and speaker. When she advised a utility-industry executive last year to give employees more feedback, he told her, "I’d rather have a colonoscopy."
There are ways to draw out a reticent boss. Acknowledging up front that you have weaknesses can make it easier for a manager to open up, says organizational psychologist Michael Woodward. It helps managers feel emotionally safe—assured that an employee isn’t going to erupt in a rage or dissolve in tears, says Dr. Woodward. Saying "I’ve had a tough time with XYZ and I’d like your help figuring out" how to solve the problem sends a message: "It’s OK to punch me in the face, Boss, because I’m doing it to myself," he says.
Ask questions in a nuanced way that suggests you know there is room for improvement, says Hassan Osman, OF Boston, a senior manager at Cisco Systems Inc. and author of a book on managing teams. Asking, "What would you do differently?" or "How do you think I can make this better?" shows you know a project isn’t perfect, he says. Asking, "What would it take for you to be really excited about this?" reflects genuine interest in the boss’s viewpoint.
Tie your request to the boss’s objectives or the company’s mission, if possible. This makes managers more inclined to help. Nearly all want to be seen as consistent in pursuing agreed-upon goals. It also puts your request in a context that is "bigger than both of you,” says Peter Bregman, a New York City leadership coach and author of the book "Four Seconds." "It’s no longer just about you.”
Keep a calm, neutral expression even if you think the feedback is wrong. "Look for the nugget of value," says Dr. Woodward.
If the boss falls back on clichés such as, "You’re not a team player," press for specifics. One manager was frustrated by her boss’s blunt response to requests for feedback. The gist of it was: "What do you need a performance review for? I’ll let you know when you’re screwing up," says Ms. Klaus, who coached her about two years ago. The manager finally took her manager a list of skills she wanted to develop, such as being articulate and concise during presentations, and asked him to rate her on each one.
Sometimes it helps to be specific about what feedback has been useful in the past. You can say: "When you told me I should have handled the XYZ project a different way, it was enormously helpful," says Denver career coach Aimee Cohen.
How to Dodge a Brush-off
BOSS: You’re doing fine.
EMPLOYEE: Thanks, but my team is missing our targets, and I’m hoping you can help me understand why. Is there some gap in my skills?
THE TECHNIQUE: Admitting up-front that your work isn’t perfect eases the burden on the boss.
How to Sidestep Clichés
BOSS: You need to be a better team player.
EMPLOYEE: I know that’s important, but what does that look like? What are two or three things you’d do differently if you were in my shoes?
THE TECHNIQUE: Telling a manager you want specific action items can be helpful.
Thank the manager for whatever comments you do get. Even if you think it is mean or off-target, acknowledge that "it must have been a real risk for you to share that with me. I really appreciate it," suggests Mr. Bregman, adding that many bosses will soften after such a response.
If your boss is still reticent, try a workaround. Ask the boss what other managers or colleagues think of your performance, says Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "If people hold a particular belief, they are more likely to think that others agree or have had similar experiences." The strategy also may ease the boss’s fears that you’ll hold a grudge against him, Dr. Cowen says.
Asking for examples of work you could emulate can be helpful. Kathryn Minshew, chief executive officer of the career-development website The Muse, New York City, advises setting the stage for regular feedback soon after you begin working with a new boss. Ask the best way to check in on how you’re doing, including how often and whether via email, instant message, phone or in person.
Larry Gioia was impressed when an employee newly assigned to his team emailed him before starting work and asked to schedule a phone conversation to discuss the best ways to work together. During the call, she told him she wanted prompt, frequent feedback; he told her that was his preference too, says Mr. Gioia of Pittsburgh, a health-care technology consultant. Her behavior "shows she’s results-oriented and takes responsibility for her own career," he says.
Amy Sinclair has asked her boss Pam Borton for a lot of feedback since starting her job as executive director of TeamWomenMN, a Minneapolis nonprofit, two years ago. Over time, the two have adapted to each other’s style. A former head college basketball coach, Ms. Borton, president of the professional-development and networking organization, is accustomed to delivering quick, candid critiques of subordinates’ work.
Ms. Sinclair used to object on the spot if she disagreed, but with coaching from Ms. Cohen, the Denver career coach Aimee Cohen, she has learned not to take it too personally or react right away, but to reflect for a day or two on a more thoughtful response.
And Ms. Borton has learned to give Ms. Sinclair more pats on the back when she performs well, she says. "Everybody wants to get feedback in different ways. It was important to me to learn Amy’s style, and what made her successful."
Again, that was "How to Find Out What the Boss Really Thinks of You By Sue Shellenbarger, from the Wall Street Journal