Your boss is thinking things about you he can't say--or, more accurately, won't say. Maybe he's noticed your productivity tends to go down after lunch or your weekly reports are a bit subpar. He's afraid of upsetting you, disrupting work, or causing you to think he's not a good boss.
Yes, even the smartest, well-trained manager struggles with feedback, and it has the potential to stall your career. This is a problem for all professionals and has a disproportionate impact on women, according to Kim Scott, author and advisor at Dropbox, Kurbo, Qualtrics, Rolltape, Shyp, and Twitter.
Reading her thoughts on gender and radical candor hit home. She described a common pitfall in the boss/employee relationship that I'd suspected but had never been able to validate.
Feedback is essential to your success. So, your boss' fears are actually holding you back. To overcome this problem, you must step forward in a way that few employees do and demand the honest feedback you need to get the growth and advancement opportunities you need.
The first problem is thinking that your boss is telling you everything you need to know about perceptions of your past performance and of your future potential among the leadership team. He's not. The reason is he doesn't know how to tell you and is afraid of the fallout when he does. Even if you have a half-decent annual assessment process that is structured and grounded in input from multiple levels in your organization, your boss is still likely filtering out the most critical pieces of information you need. This must stop.
It's your boss' job to get better at providing feedback, but he's unlikely to do it on his own. Why? First, he thinks he's okay--maybe even good--at giving feedback. Second, he's busy and knows that sitting down to go through the necessary steps and answering all of the questions that arise takes time. Third, he's afraid. In some cases, he might be afraid of upsetting someone but, in most cases, he's just afraid of an uncomfortable conversation. The number of conflict-adverse people at work is shockingly high.
Because your boss may be unlikely to take the steps needed to improve, you have to step forward. Assuming everything is okay until you hear otherwise is a risky approach to running your career. You're going to miss out on opportunities because your boss doesn't think he's the right fit or that you're ready--and you won't even know. Those decisions will be made behind the scenes without you ever being considered as a viable candidate.
Schedule time with your boss to let him know you're interested in radical candor. You might even share Scott's article if you believe they would read it and reflect on the benefits. Use advice on how to give feedback to make it known that you want to hear what's on your boss's mind. Let your boss know that you're ready to receive direct feedback because you're interested in developing skill sets that will further your career and better support the business. And explain that you can handle it.
Be specific. To start, come up with something specific that you're interested in hearing more direct feedback on. Perhaps you're curious to know his opinion on your presentation skills, writing, ability to sell to new clients, or project management capabilities. While these are pretty broad categories, they'll give your boss a place to focus. This is simply a starting point that opens the door. You can broaden the scope of the conversation as you build mutual trust. Then, identify opportunities to work more closely together so he can observe you in action.
Don't get defensive. This is the single biggest thing you can do to shut down an otherwise important, productive conversation. You don't have to agree with everything your boss is saying, but you have to hear it. Commit in advance to hold on to your reaction until after the meeting, when you've had a chance to digest the information. Schedule a follow-up conversation to get more clarity, if needed, but don't tell him he's wrong. You'll inadvertently prevent him from sharing as openly in the future.
Accept what your boss shares as interesting and potentially helpful but not absolute reality. All feedback is shaped and shared based on one person's perspective. Your boss' feedback is about you and a dozen or so other things, including your boss's own experience, other issues happening within the organization, and the state of the business. You can't internalize everything shared as an absolute truth. It's simply a data point that you'll later check against what you know to be true about yourself.
It can be tough to hear really direct input on your performance but it's exactly what you need if you want to grow. If you know you're prone to involuntary reactions, such as extreme blushing or crying, be proactive. Bring your own tissues and a bottle of water. Scott suggests walking and talking with your boss to avoid the direct face-to-face awkwardness. Fear of tears is one of the things that prevents bosses from sharing more freely. While it's not ideal, you can try sharing that you have a tendency to cry but are still interested in hearing what your boss has to say. If you have a strong relationship, you should be able to push through and still get the information you need. Getting challenging feedback does get easier over time. Doing it repeatedly is the only way to make it easier as you progress.
Demanding challenging feedback is critical to your career. Without it, you're guessing about what areas you should focus on to grow. You'll also be missing out on opportunities and not know why. While it's fair to argue that it's your boss's job to get you the information you need, you must know he may not take this step because of his own fears and doubts. Help him overcome this hurdle by stepping forward and creating the space needed for him to share with you what he sees and get his ideas on where to focus your development.