MBA Career Advice: Turn a Disparaging Comment into Usable Feedback

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will dispense invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. 

Recently on the MBA Career Coaches blog, we talked about what to do if you get some “unuseful feedback” in the form of a disparaging remark from a colleague, client, or superior. The first step is to stop and temporarily let it go. After the heat of the moment has passed and there is some distance between you and the incident, follow up with the individual who delivered the comment and find out what you can do to improve. In an opportune moment, no more than a few days after the original incident, follow up in these ways:

Remind your manager of the comment: “After our Tuesday meeting, you remarked that my comments weren’t helpful, and I just wanted to follow up with you about that.”

Probe for more information: Provide additional detail, if needed, and then probe your manager’s comment for more detail. The idea here is to understand very specifically where the criticism is directed so that you know where to go to work. Your boss’s comments about your conclusion slide may have been about color and format, not logic and reason. So you could waste a whole lot of time belaboring your next conclusion slide in terms of its content and still miss the mark on what your manager wanted to see change. Here are some potential questions to ask based on a few different comments:

I didn’t like your conclusion slide.

  • Here is the slide you were referring to. Can you say more about what you mean? What about it doesn’t work for you?
  • Is it the information or the way it is arranged?
  • How would you improve it?

Your comments in the meeting weren’t helpful.

  • Which aspect of my comments did you find unhelpful?
  • Was the issue that I didn’t communicate clearly or was the content of my comments the problem ?

You need to work on your phone interview skills.

  • Can you say more about this? Which aspect of my skills do you think needs development?
  • Is it my communication style or the content of the questions I am asking that you feel needs work?

You just aren’t good at Excel.

  • Here is the model I have been working on. Can you tell me which aspects of it don’t meet your expectations?
  • Are you questioning my analytical reasoning ability or the design and clarity of my model?

Engage with what your manager says and ask further follow-up questions. Do not stop until you have understood precisely where your area for development is.

Seek guidance: Ask your manager for his/her advice on ways you can develop or improve.

  • How would you encourage me to better prepare for next time so that I can a make more meaningful contribution?
  • What steps would you suggest I take to get better at this skill?
  • I’d like to really work on this. What do you suggest I tackle first?

And you can even propose concrete development steps:

  • I am going to take the slide design seminar being led next week.
  • I think it would be very helpful for me to prep for our next two big meetings with you and think through potential comments I could add beforehand.
  • Next time, let’s review my interview script before I make the phone calls, so you can help make sure the questions will yield useful results.

Create next steps: After you have understood your area of development and brainstormed key ways to improve, align on your next steps and let your boss know precisely what you will do. Be sure to ask for permission to follow up. “I am going to do these three things we discussed in the coming month. I’d like to check-in with you in three weeks to revisit this area and make sure I have made concrete progress. Perhaps we can sit down for 15 minutes after our scheduled team meeting?”

Then be sure to create the time to follow up—get that time on the calendar now if your manager runs a very regimented schedule, or at least be sure that he/she expects to hear from you in a specific time frame so that he/she can make time for you then.

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