How to ask for feedback that actually makes a difference

After hours of prep work, plenty of pep-talks with your pals and a strategic game plan, you finally felt ready to go into your mid-year review — metrics-blazing. But when you walked out of your manager’s office? You felt confused, uninspired and defeated. Though all professionals know the importance of feedback and how it shapes the progress of your career, collecting observations that actually make a difference in your performance — and er, your salary — is tricky to navigate. Because many aren’t sure how to filter the information in a meaningful way or ask the right questions, one-on-one meetings can feel like a waste of everyone’s time. That’s why exercising tactics that get to the heart of your work are far more beneficial than the standard sit-down.

Here, experts shed insight on how to ask for feedback that will set you sailing toward whatever professional goal is next on your priority list:

Ask for feedback far before review season

Though the review process varies widely across companies, industries and countries, if you are hoping for a promotion, a raise or recognition, career expert Jill Tipograph suggests getting started … yesterday. If you wait until the date scheduled on the calendar for all employees, you don’t allow yourself time to make changes that could make or break your ask. And notably, you prevent yourself from getting in front of the decision-making stakeholders you need to woo.

“Early feedback request could open you up for an earlier promotion and recognition, even allowing you to take on new projects and build your skills for professional development and future jobs,” she shares. “And these new projects could expose you to managers in other areas so when internal opportunities occur, they reach out and request you- or you reach out to them given the working rapport you developed.”

As an added benefit, Tipograph adds this opens up the pathway of communication between you and your manager, demonstrating your interest in wanting to contribute and improve. This makes it more likely they’ll be batting in your court when it’s time to approach the topic of next steps in your career.

Be strategic about timing

When you were a kid, you knew it wasn’t a smart choice to ask mom for something when she was stressed packing lunches for school. Or when your best friend is in the throws of hanger, you likely don’t ask her for relationship advice. Same goes with your timing for feedback: if you approach your boss in the heat of a demanding quarter or when they’re dealing with a stressful personal crisis, you probably won’t achieve the outcome you’re seeking.

“Find the appropriate time, not during deadlines, or when your boss’ boss is asking for things from him/her. Nor pre-vacation or before a big corporate event or presentation, and not a Monday morning or Friday afternoon. Approach your boss with openness and a willingness to listen and improve,” Tipograph says.

Give them a head’s up

While some conversations are better had spontaneously, a thorough review of your ability to execute your job responsibilities isn’t one of those. As career expert and author Todd Davis explains, if you surprise your manager with a feedback request and expect an immediate answer, they may feel caught off guard and only provide you with artificial praise or the first shortcoming they can think of, causing you to be defensive.

That’s why it’s important to schedule ahead — and get specific about what you hope to leave the meeting with. “Let them know ahead of time you’re sincerely interested in learning where you can improve. Then, listen with an open heart, even if you don’t agree with all of the feedback. Getting angry, making excuses or justifying your actions will send the signal that you don’t really want feedback at all.”

Avoid the blame game

Before you blame your ego — blame yourself, Tipograph says. Especially in a setting that celebrates constructive criticism, don’t respond to feedback by arguing. Though it could be your nature, it’s not the purpose of the meeting and it won’t help you make the changes necessary to succeed. “Take ownership and responsibility for things you did or did not do. Don’t blame others for your lack of success; no one likes a tattler or complainer. The feedback can’t all be glorious, it’s meant to be helpful.”

Ask specific questions

While you shouldn’t lace up your boxing gloves before heading into your feedback gathering, Tipograph says it’s also not recommended to stay silent throughout the session. In the healthiest of office environments, collaboration, and communication reign supreme, making questions a necessary part of the experience. Managers will often take pride and respect employees who want to know the specific, nitty-gritty ways they can improve in their current role, so engage your curiosity bone.

“Ask questions to which responses will be specific. Do you think the report was too long? How could I have collaborated more with the team? Are there other visual tools I could have used to improve my presentation?” she suggests.

Take notes

Another oversight of most employees is coming into your review sessions with a coffee in hand. Though some companies prefer to keep the experience more casual and less stuffy, paying attention is what will produce the most change in your gig. As executive coach Libby Gill suggests: Write. It. Down.

“If you’ve ever wondered how a waiter is supposed to remember a massive order — and then he doesn’t — you’ll understand why it’s so satisfying to others, namely your boss when you pay rapt attention. Besides, there’s something very powerful about committing pen to paper. It not only becomes a permanent record, but it’s indelibly etched in your brain,” she explains.

Implement the feedback

Until you put your weaknesses into tangible goals you can set to shape, feedback is worthless. That being said, Davis says it’s not vital to implement every piece of advice you receive. Instead, look for patterns and evaluate what your manager shared. Some of his or her reports may be skewed on their own opinions and experiences, and not necessarily vital to your performance. That’s why you have to match what they say with where you see yourself heading. “Create a set of values and a long-term vision of who you want to become. Then compare the feedback against what you feel is most true for you,” he says.

Once you’ve settled on actionable next steps: get to it! After all, Davis says not acting on feedback – or explaining why you aren’t going to act on it — is worse than not asking about it to begin with.