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How to handle a boss who gives you vague feedback

Most of us have experienced this problem at some point. This comprehensive guide can prevent your career from stalling.

How to handle a boss who gives you vague feedback
[Photo: Flickr user J E Theriot/Unsplash]

The weekly one-on-one meeting with my manager wasn’t off to a good start. I entered his office, offered a few pleasantries, and he wordlessly sat in his chair, nodded, and smiled. I began sharing the details of my project work that week and how things were going. He smiled and nodded.

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His silence made me nervous, and I began rambling about what wasn’t going well and the issues I was facing. Again, he smiled and nodded. Eventually, I ran out of things to say. I asked, “Is there anything else you want to discuss?” He smiled and shrugged to indicate that there wasn’t. I stood up awkwardly and shuffled to the door, “Well, okay. I guess we’re done. Talk to you next week.”

I hope you never experience such a bizarre non-conversation with your boss. However, as a career adviser, I’ve had many clients who described similar meetings and expressed frustration with their boss providing ambiguous (or little) feedback. They suffer from unclear performance expectations, and their boss refuses to be pinned down on what it will take for them to receive a promotion.

It can be challenging to push back or ask for clarification, especially with some bosses. But, you can’t settle for ambiguity in your job requirements or fuzzy feedback on your performance. If you let it persist, it will slowly stall your personal development and career progress.

So, what can you do? These steps that may help you address this issue. They’ve worked for both my clients and me. Of course, you will need to evaluate your situation and decide if they’re right for you. Oddly enough, an “absentee boss” does present a unique opportunity to take full ownership of your career development. But first, you need to understand what is going on.

1. Assess the impact

Unfortunately, these types of bosses are more common than you might think. Only 35% of U.S. managers are engaged in their work and the workplace. So, you should know that it’s not your fault and you’re not alone. Up to 50% of people in the U.S. have been forced to quit a job to escape a bad manager.

How long has it been since your last promotion or significant raise (e.g., more than 3%)? If you’ve been doing great work, but you haven’t been promoted in the last 2-3 years, that’s concerning. Perhaps your boss believes that you’re not meeting expectations, yet you never receive the feedback you need to make improvements. If you already know that your boss is deliberately suppressing your career progress, then you will need to take immediate action.

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However, sometimes, it is more of a case of benign neglect, and there’s no reason to start searching for a new job immediately. There are times when your boss’s negligence isn’t helping you, but it isn’t hurting you either. In these instances, you can seek coaching from others in the company who are better positioned to help you succeed.

2. Seek counsel from trusted sources

Get honest feedback on your performance from others who’ve worked closely with you. Some of your coworkers may be comfortable sharing their insights about your performance via email or sitting down with you over a cup of coffee. However, many may prefer to provide anonymous feedback, which can often yield better results. For example, you could use a product like SurveyMonkey’s “Employee Performance Template” to create a simple 10-question survey that you email to a few colleagues.

I’ve found that my coworkers knew more about my accomplishments, strengths, and areas for improvement than my manager ever did. While this may not always be true, many people don’t work side-by-side with their direct manager daily.

Use this input from others to craft your performance assessment. Prepare your performance plan for ongoing career development. Having all of this ready will make the later conversation with your boss more focused.

Next, arrange private discussions with other employees who currently report to your boss to find out if they are having similar issues when trying to elicit performance feedback. You may discover that this is how your boss communicates with everyone. You should also ask if they have any useful strategies or recommendations for interacting with him or her.

I did this when I was baffled by my nodding, smiling boss. I thought something was wrong with me until I spoke with a few other colleagues and found out that he behaved the same way with them, too. This helped me formulate my strategy. It can also be useful to talk with past employees who might be more willing to open up now that they are no longer reporting to him or her. Choose individuals you can trust to maintain the confidentiality of your conversations.

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3. Try to understand your boss’s motives

You’ll need a different strategy depending on what your boss’s underlying reasons are for giving you vague feedback. For example, he or she may not be fully informed about the work you’ve been doing and is, therefore, unable to assess your performance accurately. Surprisingly, Gallup research has found that only 34% of employees agree that their manager knows about their current projects or tasks.

Alternatively, your boss may have never been formally trained to provide constructive feedback that helps employees grow. Many managers don’t even know how to coach others effectively. While unfortunate, you can take advantage of this opportunity to write your own review and performance plan.

Another motive could be that your boss is worried about losing you. They believe that you may be tempted to seek greener pastures if you receive the guidance you need to improve your performance. “Sometimes senior leaders are reluctant to provide development for their rising executives for fear up-and-coming talent will be whisked away to other parts of the company,” said Mark Van Buren, research leader at SHL, in an interview with Ron Lawrence for an article published in the Business Strategy Series.

You’ll need to probe a bit in conversations with your boss to understand if this is the underlying motive. If it is, you can reassure them that you aren’t leaving the company anytime soon.

Finally, there are cases when bosses feel threatened by an employee. They are worried that coaching too well may result in an employee being promoted and taking their job. This situation is the worst since your boss is intentionally impeding your progress. It will be difficult to turn things around unless your boss overcomes his or her insecurity.

4. Manage your manager

The next step is to have a direct, but professional, conversation with your boss to get clearer feedback. If you’re using fuzzy language in an attempt to be agreeable (e.g., “I think…”, “I feel like…”), your boss may be responding in kind. Instead, you’ll want to be more direct. Make good eye contact, exhibit strong body language, and use a “Radical Candor” approach to the conversation.

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Radical Candor is a management philosophy based on “caring personally while challenging directly.” It was initially created to help people become great leaders and communicate effectively with their teams. However, you can apply this philosophy to all working relationships. The framework was designed to help you navigate tough conversations like this.

Emphasize that the reason you need this clarity is so that you can become better at your job and deliver even more value for the company. Immediately ask for additional details if the answers you receive include vague goals or qualitative feedback.

For example:

Employee: “How do you feel about my performance over the past couple of months? Am I on track for promotion next quarter?”

Boss: “I think you’re doing pretty well. There are a few things I’d like to see before considering a promotion, but we’ll see how things go.”

Employee: “Can you give me some specific examples of things you’d like to see me doing to improve my performance?”

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Boss: “Well… it would be great if you could increase your visibility in the company.”

Employee: “Okay, my visibility. What would you recommend that I start doing to demonstrate the type of visibility you have in mind?”

Boss: “I guess that I would like to see you speaking up more in our team meetings. Maybe you could present one of your projects. It would be great to see you speak at the department meeting sometimes too.”

Employee: “How often would you like me to present at these meetings?”

Boss: “Oh, a couple of times a month at our team meeting would be a good start. It’s harder to get on the calendar for the department meeting, so once a quarter would be fine.”

Employee: “Great! I can do that. You can put me on the schedule for our team meeting next week.”

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You have your own style of speaking with your boss, but the takeaway here is that you should never accept fuzzy feedback. Continue asking clarifying questions until you receive the specific guidance you need to take concrete action.

5. Create a circle of advisers

One of the best investments that you can make in your lifelong career is to develop a circle of trusted advisers. These aren’t necessarily colleagues who work with you. In fact, it’s better to form this group with people outside of your company.

When your boss isn’t giving you the advice that you need, your circle can provide valuable guidance. I’ve relied on my trusted advisers for decades. We share the details of issues that we’re facing at work with complex projects, stubborn coworkers, and troublesome bosses. We explain how we are handling a particular situation and give each other the feedback that an engaged boss would typically provide.

Your advisers can be a sounding board for decisions you’re considering. They can even role-play to help you work through tough conversations you might be having with your boss. It’s much easier to open up and be vulnerable with trusted friends and advisers who will maintain the confidentiality of your discussions outside of the company.

6. Find a great mentor

While your advisers help provide feedback, it’s also essential to find someone who is further along in their career development. A more senior mentor can provide guidance that will help you get to the next level, especially when you’re not receiving what you need from your boss. It will usually be someone you admire who has already achieved the success that you desire.

The conversations with your mentor should be less tactical and more strategic. For example, don’t use your mentor to help you solve communication problems you are having with a colleague. Instead, discuss your long-term career plans. Work with your mentor to map out a strategy to help you improve your performance so that you can get promoted and advance your career.

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You can also leverage your mentor’s experience and wisdom to recognize when it is a worthwhile investment to make an effort to improve your situation at work. Additionally, they may realize when it is time to look for a better opportunity elsewhere.

7. Locate your champion

We often expect that our boss will be our champion and help us advance. However, this isn’t always the case. In my career, I can count on one hand the number of times that a boss has played this role. If your boss isn’t helping you grow and move up the ladder, you will need to find someone who will. Locating a champion requires intentionally networking with individuals you admire who are in positions of influence in the company.

Champions— also referred to as sponsors — differ from mentors in that they take a more active role in your formal growth in the company. People with a champion are 23% more likely to move up in their career. The best ones will proactively let your boss know that you’re doing great work. They’ll also ask if they are considering you for the next promotion cycle. They will advocate for you with other senior leaders. They have a level of influence in the company that ensures that people will listen.

During my corporate career, I played the role of champion for talented individuals in other organizations when I noticed the great work they were doing with my team. I have also had champions from other organizations set up meetings with me to let me know how great someone was in my organization. As a leader, you can’t be in every meeting with every employee or review all work produced. You may not know how well someone is performing, especially when they might feel too uncomfortable to tell you about it themselves. I always appreciated when a champion would take the time to let me know.

8. Create a career development plan

No one cares about your career more than you do. If your boss won’t help you create a plan, take ownership, and do it yourself. Sometimes, the best power move to make is providing your boss with a performance assessment that you authored (assuming that’s the way that employee feedback is typically handled at your company). If they aren’t clear about how you’re performing, you create that clarity. You might be surprised at how well this works. People are always busy, and you just made your boss’s life easier by writing your review. I once did this with one of my managers, and he used it almost “as is” when he wrote my review later.

9. Be ready with backup plans

After you’ve had your initial discussion where you got greater clarity from your boss, it’s time to prepare for your next one-on-one meeting. Be ready to discuss your goals, the progress you’ve made, what you need from him or her, and the timeline you expect. Identify the outcome that you want and create a specific and structured request. Again, you are managing your manager. Be firm and direct, but always be respectful and polite.

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This process can take time. However, if you’re still having issues with your boss and it continues to impact your career progress negatively, you have a decision to make. At some point, you need to draw your “line in the sand.” When are you willing to walk away from your job if things don’t change? Rather than making an emotional decision in the heat of the moment, create a plan with a timeline.

I always recommend that people have a backup plan prepared, even if things are going well at work. You can’t predict the future, but you can identify the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself, “What would I do if that happened?” It is much easier to calmly explore your options and create some viable alternatives for your next career move now, rather than having to scramble if something does happen. I’ve found that I’m much more confident when I know that I have a backup plan in place.

I like to think of it as having multiple plans, each with a more radical outcome: Plans A-D. Plan A consists of progressing through the previous steps and trying to make things work in your current job. Plan B could be to find a way to be transferred to another boss in your organization who would be more supportive of your career goals. Plan C might be to move to an entirely new organization within your company (if it’s large enough to support that).

If all of that fails to result in the changes that you require, you may need to prepare for Plan D: finding a new job. Take the time to carefully research and ensure that you will be moving into a new work environment with a boss who will be a better fit. It’s never easy to change jobs, but it can often be the best thing for your career growth.

My most significant jumps in roles and compensation occurred when I moved to a new company. It’s great when you can make things work out with your current job, when possible. However, when you take full responsibility for your career development, you’ll recognize when it’s time to move on and pursue even more exciting opportunities.


Larry Cornett, Ph.D., is a leadership coach and career adviser at Brilliant Forge. He helps ambitious people forge an Invincible Career® so that they get to call the shots in their work and life.

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