How to Get Meaningful Feedback from Your Supervisor


I am having my 2015 progress review this week. Over the past 26 years, I have some good, bad, or non-existent progress reviews. My agency’s 1999 guidance on performance management states, “Progress Review is a meeting conducted twice a year with an employee to give feedback regarding performance progress toward achieving the performance standards.” All of this sounds good, but based on my previous progress reviews, my supervisor and I will discuss everything but my progress.

Surprising? Not really…I have talked to many other federal employees who have had similar experiences. Four of my last five supervisors either conducted no progress reviews at all or simply emailed progress reviews to their employees to sign and email back. One “train of thought” suggests that most people, including managers, are not very good at providing developmental feedback. They can address obvious problems, and sometimes, cannot even do that. Many managers have a hard time telling someone that is doing a good job that they could do a better one.

When I supervised at another agency, we had the “pass or fail” system.” For those of you too young to remember, the pass/fail appraisal places retention-level performance at the fully successful or equivalent level (pass). If an employee did not meet or exceed the fully successful level, his or her performance was unacceptable (fail).  I liked this system because the two-level appraisal system simplified the appraisal process, focused more attention on employee feedback and development, and fostered a sense of teamwork. Responses to one agency’s internal survey indicated a strong employee interest in receiving feedback, and “pass or fail” did not allow supervisors to abdicate their responsibilities of providing meaningful feedback.

In preparation for my progress review, I found an insightful article that offers suggestions to make it easier for the supervisor to think through what employees are looking for during their progress reviews.

(1) Ask for direct feedback. To this, I usually get “Everything’s fine,” but the article suggests asking the supervisor what he would change about the way I approach my job.

(2) Debrief on specific projects. I have done this, but the article recommends asking for the supervisor’s thoughts on doing a project differently for better results.

(3) Talk about what I am building toward. “Been there, done that,” but the article proposes asking what he sees potentially standing in the way of my potential goals.

(4) Take critical feedback well. Like I said earlier, I usually get no feedback, so this will be challenging for me. The article suggests staying pleasant and professional, and even thanking him for the feedback.

For those of you who also want more meaningful feedback during your progress reviews, you might want to try some of the suggestions above.  I plan to give (2) and (3) a try during my progress review, and at least this year, I can say that I actually did have one.

More here.

Cynthia V White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Dan Gephart

Thanks for sharing. Everybody talks about these meetings form the supervisor’s standpoint, but the employee has responsibility, too.

Rachel Niebeling

Interesting, that must get very frustrating. At GovLoop we try to sync with our supervisors once a week or every other week to talk briefly about projects (in all stages). I think this helps supervisors to remember what their feedback actually is for specific projects. I find it really helpful.

Maybe you could have 10-15 minute syncs more often and keep a running document with what you talk about. Then when it comes to official review time, you have all your answers right there and can see the progress.

Patrick Fiorenza

Interesting post with a lot of great insights, and agree that for these reviews you need to come in prepared as an employee. But, I will add that some of the most frustrating things about these kinds of meetings is when your manager is not prepared, or cannot provide you adequate feedback to help you grow organizationally and improve your contributions to the team.

I think from the managers end, it requires them to provide a lot of context and broader perspectives on performance. Too often people get feedback like, “You did X well, but could improve Y,” when really you need to know the outcomes of X as well as they impact of Y across the organization. In meetings, I would gently find ways to ask for larger implications of work and where they see growth for you. If your manager can’t understand the question or explain both sides (their perspective on how you can improve and how those contributions drive value), there should be some red flags for you as an employee.

Again, these reviews are a great chance for managers to coach and show how an employees actions drive value across the entire company, and not just what an employee would like/desire to do. Managers need to strike the balance, or else employees can just get lost in their day-to-day. As employees, it’s on us to manage up and get what we need from our managers to hold up our end of the bargain. It’s a great time to identify areas of improvement, learn what you do well, identify growth opportunities and contribute more back to the team.

David Kuehn

That agency guidance on performance reviews dates from 1999 says a lot. Formal reviews often are a tough time to get feedback. It is difficult for supervisors or employees to discuss issues that could have negative outcomes. It often can be easier to have those conversations outside of and in between formal reviews.

Veronica Barrientos

Good article but hard to read. For us who have difficulty with our eyes, is it possible to make the article body in black instead of present font?