Giving negative feedback, whether it’s to your best friend, a coworker, or the person standing next to you using his outdoor voice while talking indoors on his cell phone, can be awkward. As a result, bosses often do what most of us would do in that situation and avoid it if at all possible. Instead of addressing work-related issues head on, they often try to give you subtle clues with the hopes that you’ll “get the message” without an awkward conversation or, even worse, a heated confrontation.
Don’t get me wrong, as an employee I can definitely say there’s something about not having to hear negative feedback from the boss that sounds pretty attractive. Especially when you think you’re doing a great job. But therein lies the curse. If you don’t pick up on the subtleties, it could end up costing you your job.
Where can you find those subtle hints?
Questions. In speaking with coworkers, and looking back at my own experience, it seems like some bosses use questions as a way to point you in the right direction without coming right out and telling you to do things a certain way. For example, instead of telling you how to manage the project, they might ask you to walk them through your thought process, who will be involved, resources you’ll need, etc. Listen to what he or she is asking (or isn’t asking). If it sounds like your boss is asking questions as a way to guide you in a certain direction, take that into consideration before you respond.
Frequent check-ins. There is usually a strong positive correlation between the frequency of check-ins from the boss and poor performance—especially if your boss is someone who normally lets your team work with a great deal of autonomy. If you notice that you’ve gone from no check-ins, to one a week, to a few a week, to a few a day, you might be in trouble. On the flip side, going from weekly check-ins to no check-ins could also mean your days are numbered. Instead of waiting for them to come to you, ping your boss with preemptive updates. If done properly, they should help build their trust in your abilities.
And sometimes even the not so subtle can seem subtle. You’re hoping to expand your job responsibilities but your boss tells you repeatedly that he or she isn’t ready to have that discussion. But, because you’re focused on your own agenda, you don’t hear it. If that happens more than once, it could force a wedge between you.
Pay attention to the verbal and non-verbal cues your boss might be giving you about your performance. When it seems like he or she is trying to tell you something without coming right out and say it, it’s up to you to listen.