Project Grow

If Your Boss Isn't Telling You How to Improve, Here's How You Can Find Out for Yourself

Ask around and ask often for specifics about what you need to do to succeed.
If Your Boss Isn't Telling You How to Improve, Here's How You Can Find Out for Yourself
Image credit: Thomas Barwick | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
8 min read

Each edition of this Women Entrepreneur series, Behind the Numbers, presents a stat about a disadvantage women face at work and in business, examines the dynamics at play and provides guidance to help women overcome obstacles.

Your boss calls you into his office one afternoon to surprise you with a raise. Wow, you think, I must have done something right! He then proceeds to tell you why he thinks you deserve it. “You’ve been doing a great job. You put a lot of thought into what you do, and it shows. Keep up the good work.”

You’re making more money, your boss is happy with you -- what more could you ask for? Well, the problem is, you don’t know how to grow from here. The vague feedback your manager provided will help you maintain the status quo, but it won’t get you to that next rung on the ladder in another year or so, because it doesn’t tell you what specifically to double-down on, or what else you might do to shine even brighter and contribute tangibly.

In an analysis of performance reviews within a large tech company, a pair of Stanford University researchers found that women received vague praise 57 percent of the time, compared to 43 percent of the time for men. Women also were less likely (40 percent) to have their performance linked to business outcomes versus men (60 percent).

Even further, vague feedback and low performance reviews go hand in hand for women more often than for men. It’s one thing to get a pat on the back with no guidance to accompany it. It’s another thing when a lack of direction comes with a slap on the wrist. How are you supposed to remedy what you’ve done wrong? It might even make you question the accuracy of the feedback, if your manager can’t pinpoint it.

The researchers, Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, explain that bias may be to blame. Men may associate technical skills with other men more so than women, while they may stereotype women as caregivers who are team players in support roles, but not leaders. They also may be less receptive to assertive behavior coming from women, which may explain Correll and Simard’s finding that in reviews, where managers labeled employees “too aggressive,” 76 percent of the time, those on the receiving end of this criticism were women.

Another factor that may contribute to women lacking specific feedback is that managers are reluctant provide even constructive criticism to someone in a different demographic group. Male managers may be afraid that a female employee won’t take it well, so they want to avoid confrontation, the researchers explain, citing the findings of Simmons College professor Stacy Blake-Beard. In the end, the female employees are hurt because they’re deprived of feedback that could benefit them.

Related: Use This Mindset to Help Everyone in Your Network Succeed

There are several steps managers can take to make sure they review all employees in an equal manner, providing actionable tips that connect directly to business outcomes and ensuring they hold everyone to identical standards. But not all managers will take these steps, leaving women without the feedback they need to succeed.

If you find yourself in this position, says Lauren McGoodwin, founder and CEO of Career Contessa, don’t give up. McGoodwin shares a few suggestions for what women can do to solicit career-advancing feedback and get ahead.

1. Ask for feedback on a regular basis.
If you work in a company with annual check-ins, chances are you and your manager won’t remember exactly what you spoke about the previous year. On the other hand, your day-to-day chats in an open office won’t cut it -- you need formalized one-on-ones. Tell your manager you want to set up monthly 15-minute meetings.

Don’t phrase it as a question of whether your manager would be willing. State your needs. If applicable, say something like, “I want to get feedback on what I’m working on as it compares to the company’s goals and the department’s goals,” McGoodwin says. Make it clear: “This is what I need to be successful in my job.”

If your boss needs to cancel a meeting, make sure you reschedule it, and if that’s not possible or falls through again, don’t get discouraged. Have the meeting the following month and beyond.

2. Keep records.
McGoodwin also advises sending an agenda before each meeting. “I think a good place to start is, your first meeting could be, ‘here are the things I want to work toward in the next three to six months.’” After the meeting, send a recap summing up what you’ve discussed. Then, base the agenda for your next meeting off what you decided in the previous meeting. Make sure every agenda includes a record of the goals you’ve set and achieved, as a reminder to your manager.  “Every month, you have an opportunity to humble-brag and talk about your accomplishments,” McGoodwin notes.

Make a special folder in your email where you keep all of this correspondence, so it’s right at your fingertips when it’s time to ask for a promotion, for instance, and you can point to the progress you’ve made based on the criteria your boss have laid out over time.

3. Adapt to your manager’s preferred communication style.
As McGoodwin recalls, “I had a previous boss who was great with one-on-ones. I had another boss who was like, I hate one-on-ones, I think they’re a waste of time.”

Be a chameleon, and find a way to compromise based on your manager’s preferences. If your boss leans on email to deliver key information, follow suit, then think about the style in which your boss emails you. Are his messages short and direct? Is he a storyteller who provides a lot of detail and context? Does he use bullet points? Structure your correspondence accordingly. If you aren’t sure what style he prefers, ask colleagues who have worked with him for a while.

For in-person interactions, McGoodwin says, try to pick up on body language cues, or even how your boss runs meetings -- casually or formally, though err on the side of formal, she says. “Maybe you make sure that you start the meeting asking about weekend plans,” McGoodwin says, if your boss makes a habit of making that sort of personal small talk.

Related: To Rise up the Ranks at Work, Women Can Take These 4 Steps

4. Ask around.
If you have a specific career goal, but your boss’s feedback (or lack thereof) isn’t giving you a sense of how to rise to the next level, ask someone who is in the role you aspire to what their responsibilities are. McGoodwin provides the example of a social media coordinator who wants to be a director of social media someday. The coordinator could ask the director within her company if it’d be all right to shadow for a day, and from that figure out what experience she’d need to gain.

Or, she could request informational interviews with social media directors at other organizations -- or even study job listings -- to figure out what it takes to land that type of role. Then, she could go back to her boss with the information she’s gathered and say something along the lines of this potential script McGoodwin provides: “I really appreciated you taking the time to talk with me. You did give me a little feedback, but I wanted to go a step further.”

Then, lay out the things you’ve identified that you need to work on to reach your goal. To make it a win-win, describe how the steps you plan to take also align with your department’s goals, McGoodwin explains.

If you don’t have a specific career goal in mind but know you want to grow at work, McGoodwin suggests asking your manager, “What are your goals for our department? What are the goals of the company?” Also, ask how you can help toward those goals.

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