Asking for Feedback

Do you know what your boss thinks about your performance at work?

Some readers will be able to answer “yes” to this question without much thought because they go through evaluations at least once a year, and those evaluations are built into their work calendars. These meetings are a great opportunity not only to get feedback from their bosses, but also to give feedback about how their own job is working out for them – and to consider that all-important question of salary. 

In some less-organised medium-sized firms, though, and in many smaller firms, evaluations either do not happen at all or happen on an irregular timescale. If you are working in a firm like this, you might wonder whether proactively asking for feedback about your performance may be asking for trouble. Some people will warn you that if you invite feedback about how well you’re doing, you are actually inviting your boss – and management generally – to be critical about you. Certainly, you are going to hear some negative remarks if you ask for general feedback. Isn’t it much safer, they will ask, to let sleeping dogs lie?

Feedback is in fact an incredibly useful tool that can not only alert you early on to things that are going wrong, but can also give you an opportunity in your turn to alert your boss and management to the fact that they are asking you to do the impractical, if not the impossible. It gives you the chance to put across your side of a situation before it becomes a problem, and is a positive and tactful way of demonstrating that your performance has in fact been well above par over a given period. 

It is also, of course, an important opportunity to learn what you are doing well. It can be a big confidence-booster to hear that your boss considers you a technology whizz, or great with people or a good manager, and it can give you some important pointers about where you should be heading in the future. 

The key lies in asking for feedback in a way that gives your meeting structure and purpose. Yes, if you simply ask to set up a meeting with your boss that has no agenda and then ask him or her, “How am I doing?”, you will probably find that your boss will start off by complaining about something that was not done to his/her satisfaction and then get into a negative stride. That, sad to say, is human nature. So make sure that you get (and give!) your feedback in a structured and positive context.

The one essential factor is to dig out your job description. Most of us these days will have a written job description, though we may not have seen it since the day after we got the job. If you don't have one, then there’s topic 1 on your meeting agenda right there. 

More commonly, you may look back on your written job description after two or three years of doing the job and be quite surprised at its contents. You may never have been asked to do some of the tasks that are on there, while other tasks may have been added informally. There’s always an element of drift between a written job description and what you are actually doing, because your firm has probably discovered that you have skills and aptitudes that it did not know about when it hired you, while it has two or three people who can take on other tasks that require lesser skills. There may also have been changes in the support staff since you were taken on, and you may have had to pick up extra tasks because another member of the staff has left. 

All of this is fine, and understandable, provided that the job description (and your income) gets updated every so often to bring it back into line with reality. This is not about taking your firm to task because your job does not now comply with the original job description: It’s about taking account of these changes as a normal part of working life (unless you feel that you are being pushed unwillingly into a job which is radically different from the job you were taken on to do, which is a whole different issue). 

It is a good idea to match up what you are actually doing on a week-to-week basis with what is in the written job description before you ask for feedback. Always go into a meeting – any meeting – fully informed. This rule applies tenfold when you are asking for comments on your performance. It is not uncommon, particularly in small to medium firms, to find that your boss complains in an evaluation meeting about your performance of tasks which are not in fact part of your job description, or which have changed significantly since you took the job on. 

One very common example is the introduction of new technology – time recording and diary management software is just one instance – without adequate training. “Diary management” may now mean something very different from what it meant in the original job description. If you have compared what is in the job description with what you’re doing now, and you consider that you haven’t had sufficient training, then that is something you can prepare for, and can raise with your boss during the meeting in a calm and confident manner, rather than going on the defensive. 

One other big advantage of pinning a feedback/evaluation meeting agenda to your written job description is that your boss should be prevented from concentrating only on critical comments, because s/he will have to consider all of the tasks set out in the job description and give positive feedback on those that s/he considers that you're doing well. 

Bear in mind your boss’s personality, though. We all know that one boss’s “not bad” would be a five-star reference from another lawyer in the department. Don’t expect hymns of praise from the office curmudgeon. You should, however, expect to get credit for tasks that have been well and efficiently done, and acknowledgement of good performance should always be considered when salary reviews come round. 

Asking for feedback is always nerve-wracking, so the more structured and organised you can make it, the more confident you should be. Why not dust off that job description and make a start?