How to Find Out What the Boss Really Thinks of You By Sue Shellenbarger

Jan 31, 2017, 07:48 PM

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(music) How to Find Out What the Boss Really Thinks of You Some managers won’t give feedback for fear of angering employees; acknowledge your weaknesses, don’t overreact How do you get honest feedback from your boss in order to improve your skills and know how well you’re doing? WSJ’s Sue Shellenbarger joins Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero with a few tips. By Sue Shellenbarger The Wall Street Journal Updated June 28, 2016 2:31 p.m. ET 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 sk...