Deciphering Your Performance Review: How To Translate Vague Feedback Into Action
Ever get some vague feedback on your review - something like "you need to have more of an executive presence" or "you need to be more of a leader"? Executive coach Lauren Meagher prepared this guide on how to decipher that feedback and prepare a plan to grow.
October 10, 2019
Vague Feedback

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. Not only will this act as a commitment device, but you’ll also receive automatic reminders to check in on a weekly basis, and alerts if you’re falling behind on your goals.
  • Track your interactions in the Activities you add. This creates a record that will make it easy for you to review for patterns.
  • 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.
  • Measure your growth. Use Nodabl’s Self-Assessments to measure your growth in a consistent, structured way, so you can better understand the progress you’re making.

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

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Written by
Lauren Meagher
Lauren Meagher is a certified executive coach and strategic advisor who is passionate about helping businesses and executives reach their maximum potential. She had a successful career working at McKinsey, American Express, Vente Privee, and (Jim) Beam Suntory and employs her expertise in leadership, team development and execution to help executives and their teams identify blind spots and go from good to great.

Leaders come to Lauren when they need to improve overall performance. From detailed individual and team assessments to 360 degree feedback to facilitation of action plans and ongoing tracking and reporting, Lauren assists executives across a full spectrum of needs from opportunity identification through execution and assessment.

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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