Deciphering Your Performance Review: How to Translate Vague Feedback Into Action
October 10, 2019
Strategic Thinking

You’ve just emerged from your manager’s office after a feedback conversation. Your manager has asked you to work on something that sounds a bit vague, like “executive presence,” “strategic thinking,” or “being more of a leader.” During the conversation, you nodded in agreement and said, “Sure, I can work on that.” But now, back at your desk, you are wondering what the feedback actually means and what to do next. To process vague feedback and initiate change, there are four critical steps:

  1. Ask for clarity

  2. Find meaning

  3. Get specific

  4. Hold yourself accountable

Ask for clarity

Concepts like strategic thinking or executive presence can mean different tasks, traits and outlooks across companies and individuals. You need to understand what the term means within the context of you as a person, your role, and your company. One way to do this is to ask your manager open-ended questions, like:

  1. What does [term] mean within our organization?

  2. What is a good example of how [term] looks like within our company?

  3. Who exemplifies [term] either inside or outside of our company?

  4. When I was working on [X] project/function, what could I have done differently to display [term]?

  5. What does it look like when I successfully implement the feedback?

Before the meeting with your manager, try to develop a starter definition of what you think the term means based on your specific role and organization. That way, if the conversation with your manager stalls or he/she is unable to be specific, you can offer your ideas and ask for them to reflect.

See our deep dives on executive presence, strategic thinking, and being more of a leader for some guidance on what these mean.

Role models can be very useful for finding clarity as well. Using the definition from your manager, think of someone you see day to day or in the general business community who exemplifies the traits and behaviors you seek to develop. Use him/her to help define what you want to become.

Find meaning

Once you understand the feedback, dig into why it is important for you to act upon it. There are multiple points of view to consider as you do so: your own, those of your manager, and those of your company. Consider which of these rationales resonate with you, and you can use that as inspiration. Here are some questions to parse out the real value of changing:

  • What will you gain from developing these skills?

  • What could change for you once you acquire this new skill?

  • What does your manager hope to achieve through your improvement?

  • How does your company benefit from having you build this skillset?

  • Which rationale for change do you find the most compelling?

After you identify how this feedback resonates with you, think about how you can harness that meaning and use it to motivate you as you work toward change.

Get specific

Now that you’ve defined your end state and its meaning, you need to get specific. Identify exactly what you need to do and how you’ll do it. If this sounds very task- or list-oriented, that’s because it is! Growth is an intentional and deliberate process.

Using what or who exemplifies your desired end state, think about the following questions:

  • What behaviors define your end state?

  • What skills or knowledge should you acquire?

  • What activities will help you improve?

Once you’ve identified what you need to acquire or change, then you can identify how you’ll do it. Consider the answers to these questions:

  • What formal training do you need?

  • What resources can you draw upon?

  • Who could be helpful to you as you work on your feedback?

  • How will you work on the feedback, step-by-step or in parallel?

A way to start is to choose one discrete behavior that you can begin to change and measure results on immediately. For example, if your goal is building executive presence, think of the specific behaviors identified by your manager and demonstrated by your role models. They may include a laundry list of things, but choose one, like pausing to allow others to speak. For a week, keep track of the interactions where you do or do not display this behavior. Notice patterns and situations in which you are successful and build on those opportunities.

Hold yourself accountable

Now that you have identified important activities to work on or behaviors to modify, it’s time to act! There are a variety of approaches to keep yourself accountable. Some find that accountability is an independent activity; others are motivated by external accountability. Choose an approach that you can genuinely follow over a longer period of time. Here are some questions to help identify an approach:

  • When you have made a successful change in the past, what strategies did you employ to stay on track? How could that help here?

  • Who could be an ally in offering feedback on your progress? How will you ask for their feedback?

  • How will you measure and record your success?

  • What is the order of priority for each area of improvement?

  • What is the timeline for each area of improvement?

  • How will you celebrate and discuss your success?

Nodabl can make it easier to manage this process. Once you’ve determined your order of priority for each area of improvement and the associated timelines, you can:

  • Set Nodabl goals for each area and create action plans to achieve your goals. Enlist your manager’s help as needed to create your action plan and to help you find the opportunities you need to improve. Make sure you and your manager are aligned on what success means and capture that in the goal description.

  • Facilitate the feedback process. Request feedback via Nodabl from the allies you identified, and they can easily respond through Nodabl’s webform. You will then have their feedback recorded in one place for your review.

  • Give your manager, mentor, and allies access to your goals, and integrate a check-in on your progress into your regular 1-1s.

  • When you finish your action plan, have an explicit discussion with your manager about success - did you, in their opinion, successfully address the feedback? If yes, make sure it’s written down. If not, create a new action plan (and goal, if needed) in Nodabl, and continue your progress.

Translating broad feedback is manageable when you think about it in four steps: clarifying, finding meaning, getting specific, and holding yourself accountable. Break down the big, vague term into much smaller, digestible parts and you’ll be able to act on feedback more easily and celebrate your success faster

Written by
Lauren Meagher

Lauren Meagher, Managing Partner and Founder of Evolute Consulting, is a certified executive coach and strategic advisor passionate about helping leaders and businesses achieve more. She founded Evolute to share her expertise in leadership, team development and execution. Lauren previously worked at McKinsey, American Express, Vente-Privee and Jim Beam where she was well-known and respected for her execution- and achievement-oriented style of operating and leading others.

Lauren holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.B.A. in Finance and Business Economics from the University of Notre Dame where she was a Valedictorian candidate.

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