Sometimes, It’s Not On You: Standing Up to Poor Feedback

Odds are, we’ve all sat in our manager’s office (or Zoom room) at one point or another and felt our defenses kick in. Feedback can be difficult to stomach, but it is about time we stop pretending that it is always productive or always in good taste.

Managers are people. Despite the hierarchy implied by their title, they aren’t intrinsically endowed with inarguable wisdom and the foresight to help guide your career. In fact, many managers admit to feeling wholly unprepared to lead their team when they first assume their role.

That said, there are plenty of people who go into management well-intentioned to grow their team, and well-equipped to do so. The problem lies in the taboo around questioning your manager’s advice, no matter their tenure. Some feedback is simply unhelpful. At worst, it can be riddled with biases or weaponized to oppress others, and ignoring this fact does little to correct those behaviors.

Should you find yourself feeling put off by your manager’s feedback, don’t dismiss that feeling too soon. Work through these three steps, and advocate for better input that you can leverage to advance your career.

  1. Consider: Where is This Feedback Coming From?

Important to note: just because your manager gives poor feedback does not necessarily mean she intends to do wrong by you. But, since feedback is instrumental to growing as a professional, intentional or not, it’s worth confronting if it feels unhelpful.

Start by reflecting (with as much humility as possible) on your relationship with your manager up to this point, and how you would assess your contributions. Before jumping to conclusions (i.e., she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about), offer the benefit of the doubt.

Have you made your accomplishments visible to your manager? Do you maintain healthy, open conversations about what you need in order to excel at work?

Managers are busy people (as we all are), and they can’t be expected to keep tabs on every “gold star” thing you do. If you haven’t been upholding your end of the relationship by making sure your work is transparent to her and advocating for the support that you need, then there may be a perception gap in your relationship to blame. If so, this feedback might signal the need to turn over a new leaf and take on a more active role in your career growth.

On the flip side, if you’ve checked off all of your boxes, consider why this feedback feels unhelpful.

Does it lack clarity/justification? Could it be warped by identity biases? Challenge yourself to get critical. Could some of it be true, just difficult to swallow? The answers to these questions will help to determine the scale of your next steps.

2. Ask: Do I Understand You Correctly?

If your manager’s feedback is too vague to employ any meaningful action (EX: I feel like you could be more productive with your time, or: I think you are doing great work…*crickets*), then you may have to do a little coaxing to find out what she really means.

For example…

“Keep it up” might make you feel good in the moment, but left without further clarity, it doesn’t provide much intel for further development. Meaning: it can easily undercut your career.

By challenging your manager to dive deeper…

EX: Thank you! What specifically do you think I’m doing well? 

…you assert more control over your growth.

The same goes for negative vague feedback, which is often the product of unchallenged biases (more on that later).

He might say: We gave the promotion to Joe. I’m just not sure your leadership style fits the company culture at the moment.

But you could say: How would you describe the company’s preferred leadership style? Could you provide examples for how Joe embodies this so I know what to work on?

By asking for examples as a means to clarify, you minimize the potential for any secondary – equally vague, potentially harmful – defenses (i.e., You are just so good at your current role; I didn’t want to lose you to the promotion.)

There is a certain “type” that is favored in corporate leadership – it’s no secret. But unless we work to question these biases – especially when they manifest as blockades to our career development – they will continue to pose hurdles for future generations of women and other underrepresented talent.

Hold your ground and continue to question until you feel like you’ve learned something useful. You have a right to advocate for meaningful information.

3. Triage: What Can I Take From This?

More often than not, there will be something you can take away from the conversation…but truth be told: it won’t always be actionable career advice.

Sometimes that “meaningful information” is simply the insight that your manager might not be best-equipped to offer you feedback, and it could be time to enlist another trusted colleague for a second opinion.

Whether that “second opinion” comes from HR, your skip-level, or a department peer…that will be up to you. Does the feedback you receive from your manager go beyond “unhelpful” to harmful, insulting, or unfair? Is it consistently so? Further: does confronting your manager directly feel unsafe?

Employees (especially women) are told too often that whatever their supervisor says is law, but power plays are all-too-common realities of the corporate world. Bottom line: we can’t always rely on others to give us the intel we need to grow.

When seeking feedback, don’t limit yourself to your supervisor. Connect with people throughout your org, and use your judgment when implementing these perspectives. EX: How is their perception of my work informed by their own role, department, etc.? What is this person’s level of authority on this topic?

But first and foremost, exercise autonomy over your career. Document your accomplishments, as well as your feedback – helpful and unhelpful – and make your own informed decisions about how you’d like to grow. Feedback is only one piece of the puzzle, and you might be surprised how much you can learn about your potential from a little critical introspection.