What to Do When Your Boss Skips Feedback

Last week, we talked about how leaders can help a "stuck" employee improve. This week, let's take a look at the same situation from the employee's perspective: What can you do when a boss isn't happy with your work, but isn't giving you the information and performance feedback you need to improve?  

I've seen from my executive coaching clients that this is a tough spot to be in. They don't want to look incompetent and may have trouble admitting that they don't know what their boss wants from them. But at the same time, they need some help to succeed. We talk about strategies that let them save face and maintain their credibility while still discovering the shifts they need to make to meet their boss's expectations.

Remember that it's part of your boss's job to help you succeed. These ideas can help you get the support you need.

Frame Things the Right Way

How you present things to your boss can do a lot to open up communication between the two of you. For starters, think about how you typically frame up issues you need help with. Instead of just saying you don't fully understand an assignment she's given you, communicate your intentions before you ask any questions. For example, "I want to make sure I am delivering the right results and making the best use of your time and mine. So, can I get some clarification and more information about X, Y and Z?". Communicating your intent in a positive way can help your boss see how you are focused on meeting her expectations.

Clarify Expectations

Some bosses just aren't that skilled at delegating or clearly communicating their expectations when they make assignments. It's OK — and much better for you in the long term — to ask what you need to know to get a handle on what your boss really wants. If he hasn’t shared this with you, you can prompt him with questions to clarify:

  • interim and final deadlines

  • budget parameters including time and money

  • your decision-making authority

  • the type and timing of any follow-ups or check-ins

  • how involved your boss wants to be throughout the assignment

Debrief on Your Own

Ideally, your boss should give you specific performance feedback. But this is another area where many leaders fall short. If that's true of your boss, take some steps on your own. When you complete a project, ask yourself and your project team the following questions:

  • What worked well?

  • What fell short of your expectations?

  • What would you do differently next time, given what you know now?

You can also ask your boss for input and suggestions, based on your own debrief, if she isn't forthcoming with them.

Look Beyond Your Boss

If you're struggling and your boss isn't a good resource for help, who else can you talk to? Don’t underestimate the value of your peers. Because you share the same boss and may face similar challenges, your peers might provide useful insight and advice. Depending on your specific needs, also consider reaching out to mentors or other experienced professionals in your network.

Keep Communicating

Communicate with your boss even if you're having trouble. Just don’t go "off the grid" if you get overwhelmed or don't know what to do! It is one of the worst mistakes I have see leaders make. Your boss may get frustrated, wonder why you just aren’t taking this assignment seriously or start questioning whether you really understand the importance of it.

If you're struggling with a boss who seems hard to please and doesn't give performance feedback, try one or more of these ideas this week. Even in difficult situations like this, small steps can start you on the road to big results – including more open communication in your relationship. Another resource that can help you is "Building Executive Presence" from the Leadership EDGE SeriesSM. You'll learn strategies to help others see you as someone who can move up and how to identify and correct detracting behaviors that might be getting in your way.