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How to Turn Feedback into Something You Can Act On

Hopefully you’re out there asking for and getting feedback regularly. That’s great! Now, if you’re getting a lot of feedback, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t all be high quality, actionable stuff. We’ve said before, “Don’t criticize the criticism,” and we’ve talked about what to do if you disagree with the feedback. But what about feedback that you’re not sure what it means, or how to act on? What do you do with that?

We recently got this question from one of our podcast listeners:

When your boss tells you during your performance review that you need to develop a sense of urgency (as I was recently told) what kind of suggestions would you have for the employee

Let me tell you what I would do if I got this specific feedback, and hopefully you can apply these steps to your own situation, whatever the hard-to-understand feedback is.

Ok, so the boss told me “you need to develop a sense of urgency.” Huh. A sense of urgency. Does that mean the boss doesn’t think I work hard enough? That I don’t put in enough hours? If that’s the case, then maybe what the boss wants me to do is spend more time at the office.

The thing is, it’s very hard to know if that is in fact what the boss wants, based on the “sense of urgency” feedback. So step 1 is to try to unpack the actual shortcoming that my boss is seeing.

Ask the person to say more

Of course, I’m not a mind-reader (and you probably aren’t either), so I can’t assume really anything about what the boss means. The first order of business is to ask my boss, “Can you say more?” In doing this, I want to manifest as curious and not defensive. The open question is a good way to encourage the other person to continue talking, without responding or making it more difficult for them by, say, asking for examples.

While my boss responds, I’ll take notes and really try to understand her view. My goal is to try to elucidate everything in the boss’ head around my “lack of a sense of urgency.”

This feedback can mean soooooooooooo many things, and I shouldn’t guess, so I’m going to make it a priority to really understand what the boss thinks here.

Figure out what success looks like

We say all the time that repeating success is easier than fixing problems. In this case, I haven’t had success, but I can still try to understand what it looks like so that it’s easier to achieve. So step 2 is to try to understand what would signal to my boss that I have the proper sense of urgency.

One way I might do this is by asking my boss, “Who here has an appropriate sense of urgency? I’d like to think of them as a possible model.”

Or I might ask, “In your mind, what does a perfect sense of urgency look like?”

With either of these options, I can hopefully tease out some of the behaviors or specific work products that my boss wants to see from me.

Tie it back to your objectives

Once I have a better understanding of my boss’ perspective and what she’s looking for, I’m going to think a little bit more about the root cause of this feedback, and how I can show progress towards it in the future. I’ll leave the conversation and spend some time on my own thinking about this feedback, and I’ll take the additional step of thinking about the feedback in the context of my objectives.

Let’s say I had been pursuing clear, measurable goals, rooted in clear team priorities every week/month/quarter. If I were missing the deadlines for my goals, then “lacking a sense of urgency” might be a good root cause analysis. Maybe this is what led my boss to give this particular feedback. So I would come back to my boss and ask, “I missed some deadlines this quarter. Would you say that’s a key area where I needed more of a sense of urgency?”

On the other hand, oftentimes non-specific feedback like this manifests in situations where there are not clear objectives and timing for those objectives. This could mean that the objectives didn’t exist, or that the other person was not on the same page with respect to those objectives.

If the goals didn’t exist, I would now push to have individual and team goals, something to clearly measure my “sense of urgency” against in the future. If there were goals, but varying ideas about priority, timelines, etc., could any of that lack of clarity have been the root of my “lacking a sense of urgency”? Maybe I can think of some ways I could have behaved differently to better show a sense of urgency, and I would run those ideas by my boss.

I think it can be extremely helpful to do this thinking and then continue the conversation with the person who gave you the feedback. You’ll be able to double check your analysis and set yourself up to show progress in this area in the future.

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Hopefully these three steps can help you turn any feedback into something you can act on and improve as a result of. How do they work for non-specific feedback you’ve received? Send us your examples in the comments, and we’ll try to help customize for your situation.

Radical Candor Misfire

Here is a story from a reader about a boss who was trying to be radically candid, but didn’t quite hit the mark.

My manager’s effort to give me guidance was a total misfire. Here are some key differences between what I experienced and the technique your article describes:

1) Feedback was given in a cramped, unattractive conference room (not on a walk as your first encounter).

2) Feedback was presented in written form initially which escalated the conversation to documentation. Normally one would expect written feedback for a severe or persistent issue. Writing it up from the start made me disengage which was the opposite of the desired effect. I think he wrote it because he was nervous he wouldn’t “say it right.” But it would have been much better if he’d “just said it.”

3) The feedback contained inaccuracies to which my manager had no interest in correcting throughout the process.

4) Feedback was always presented as one-sided, never did he ask what my thoughts were about what he was saying.

5) It never felt like a conversation or a caring intervention. When I asked him if he really had any interest in coaching me, he said: “That’s all I have been trying to do”. If that was true, I never felt it.

In the end, I resigned because I had no faith he would be an advocate for me in the future.

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