How to avoid pacifying performance reviews

July 18, 2011: 12:05 PM ET

Getting feedback while on the job can be invaluable, but it has to be given and received with anticipation. Here's how to ask your boss for a performance review.

By Jodi Glickman, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- Jeff Jenkins was a first-year banking analyst who was technically proficient beyond anyone's wildest dreams -- he was the analyst every vice president wanted staffed on their deals.

Jeff stopped by his vice president Karen's office one evening after finishing an important client meeting and asked how she thought he had done presenting his merger analysis. In truth, he had done a lousy job. While Jeff could build a cash flow model faster than Karen could say the very words, he wasn't very good at explaining his technical analysis to a non-numbers audience, i.e. the client.

In an ideal world, Karen would have sat down with Jeff and told him that while he did a great job putting together the analysis, he needed to work on his client presentation skills. She would have praised his accuracy and facility with numbers, but would have let him know that he needed to work on turning his technical analysis into language easily understandable and accessible to a layperson. She would have told him to speak with Brian, another analyst who was particularly good at this, or would have spent time going through the presentation with him and showing him the ways in which she would have presented the numbers differently.

Unfortunately for Jeff, it was 9:30 p.m. and Karen was racing to get home. She told Jeff he did a great job and thanked him for his hard work. Karen knew she was robbing Jeff of invaluable feedback, but there were two things working against both of them at that moment. One, Karen was exhausted and wanted to end her day. Two, Karen hadn't had time to think about delivering a message that would be helpful and constructive. Instead, she punted -- to avoid a difficult conversation and to save time.

How many times have you inquired about your own performance or been in a situation where someone has asked you how they were doing, only to answer or to hear, "you're doing a great job." You walk away somewhat relieved but also somewhat unconvinced -- knowing on some level perhaps that the other person may not have given you the whole truth.

It's not uncommon to drop by someone's office or corner a colleague directly following a meeting to ask, "How did I do?" or "How do you think that memo looked that just went out to the client?" While asking for some informal or in-the-moment feedback after an important meeting or at the end of a major project may seem like a smart thing to do, in truth it's generally ineffective.

Here's the deal -- feedback can't be asked for on the spot. Feedback is a tool that can make you better at your job, but it has to be given and received with anticipation. It is also not a conversation for public-forum. Feedback should be asked for or offered offline and behind closed doors, period. Giving someone your thoughts on how they're doing in front of others, no matter how well intentioned you are or how timely the comments may be -- is a bad idea. Absolutely no one can be expected to receive constructive criticism in front of others effectively.

There are two overriding goals of getting constructive feedback -- they are both equally important and neither goal trumps or negates the other:

  1. Make the feedback as useful as possible to you
  2. Make the request as easy as possible on the person giving the feedback

Make the feedback as useful as possible to you

Getting "positive" feedback isn't the end-goal. Getting useful, helpful, actionable feedback is.

Hearing you're doing a great job when you're in fact doing a mediocre or subpar job is, at best, a minor disservice and, at worst, a grand injustice to you. No one cares more about managing your career than you do. No matter the fact that everyone tells you you're doing a great job, if year-end review time comes and it turns out that everyone was just being nice, well, you're the one up a creek, not the folks who cheered you on disingenuously.

So how do you get useful, helpful, actionable feedback? It starts with the following steps:

  1. Plant a seed in advance. Let someone know beforehand that you're going to want feedback from them as you work together.
  2. Make your request specific. Don't just say, "How am I doing?" Instead, ask about particular aspects of your performance.
  3. Solicit concrete and actionable ideas for improvement. "Do you have any advice on how I can improve my client presentation skills?

Make the request as easy as possible on the person giving the feedback

No less important than making the feedback useful to you is making the process as easy and painless as possible on the person giving the feedback. Asking someone to give you feedback on your performance requires an investment of their time, energy, and resources with the express purpose of advancing your career or professional development.

While the benefits of feedback go both ways (improving your own performance should ultimately benefit your manager, colleagues, and organization) you should by all means be extremely considerate of the time and energy required of your manager or colleagues to provide you with cogent, helpful feedback.

Be generous and make the process easy by doing the following:

  1. Make your request with advance notice. Again, to avoid putting your manger or colleague on the spot.
  2. Schedule the session around the other person's calendar. Suggest dates and times that are convenient for her, not just for you.
  3. Give your reviewer direction of what areas of performance you're looking for feedback on. It's always easier for someone to react to questions and ideas than stare at a blank page and come up with something on their own.

If you make the process easy on your boss and arrange the conversation in advance, you'll be in a good position to find out how you're really doing and then make meaningful changes.

The following is an adapted excerpt from Great on the Job by Jodi Glickman. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.

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