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By Martha C. White
March 2, 2015

Most of us would probably like if we got regular, useful feedback from our supervisors. Unfortunately, the only thing most of us get that even comes close is the dreaded annual performance review (which studies show up to 90% of us absolutely hate). What if there was a better way to get the feedback you need to do your job better?

That’s where Spencer Harrison, an assistant professor of management at Boston College, comes in. Harrison spent a lot of time observing how people in creative fields — where it’s not as easy to measure performance by, say, sales numbers — get feedback at work and came up with some observations that can benefit the rest of us.

It should be a two-way street. For feedback to be effective, it has to be interactive, which is the exact opposite of how most performance reviews are conducted. “Most organizations don’t structure performance reviews to be interactive,” Harrison says. In other words, this is why you feel like your boss is talking at you rather than with you.

But it usually isn’t. The feedback most people get at work is presented as objective fact rather than a point of view on which you and the boss can build together. “If the information is objective, then you can’t really have an interaction to determine what it means or where it could take you,” Harrison says. “We can only convey so much information if we are engaged in a one-sided conversation.”

You might need to ask for it. “If you can show that you were willing to experiment a bit first and do some hard thinking and then seek feedback, then you are showing that you don’t need hand-holding, you just want help with direction,” Harrison says. After you get that feedback, be thoughtful about incorporating it into your work, he adds. “Honor the feedback giver’s time by really listening and looking for opportunities to use the feedback.”

Bringing the topic up yourself gives you the advantage of being able to shape the questions and steer the direction of the feedback. “That helps them control the conversation a bit more,” Harrison says.

It can’t be personal. Harrison’s research found that feedback works when everybody involved is able to make a clear distinction between the work and the person doing it. “If feedback focuses on the person during that process then they are missing the real target,” he says. Even though it can be hard, try not to internalize criticism of your work and get defensive.

Intention makes a big difference. “Part of the problem is that organizations mix feedback that is meant to mentor and improve with feedback that is meant to evaluate,” Harrison says. This can be confusing and give mixed messages to workers. “The former allows for learning and change and the latter usually does not,” he says.

Both people need to be on the same page. “Part of getting feedback right is understanding the type of work that is being evaluated and making sure the person doing the work and the person evaluating the work have the same assumptions,” Harrison says. Ideally, this should be something that’s ironed out well in advance of a formal review, but since many companies (and bosses) aren’t equipped to offer ongoing feedback, an employee could feel like they’re being blindsided or, worse yet, set up to fail.

It should be ongoing. The problem with the annual performance review lies right in its name: It only happens once a year, and Harrison says effective feedback needs to be a continual process rather than a one-time event.

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