If you’ve ever experienced a performance appraisal in the government, you know that feedback tends to be a numerical rating. Beyond that number, the feedback tends to be vague, generic, and unactionable. So, how do you figure out where you need improvement?

There’s been a number of instances I’ve asked for feedback and gotten little more than, “You’re doing great!”

As a high performer, this doesn’t offer much in the way of improving. So I wanted to offer 3 tips to get the feedback you need to make meaningful improvements.

Tips to be ready for your next performance appraisal:

1. Be specific about what feedback you want.

Nine times out of ten, if you ask “How am I performing?” you will get an answer along the lines of “Good.” For this reason, to get the most useful feedback you need to be specific. Here’s some questions you might ask:

  • What do you look for when reviewing a report? What are some things I could work on to improve my reports?
  • I’ve been working on being more concise in the briefings I give. Would you observe me tomorrow and provide some specific feedback on where I could have been more to-the-point?
  • Are there things I should keep in mind while I prepare for my meeting next week with senior leadership? What topics should I make sure to avoid? Are there things I should make sure to include?

2. Accept feedback without being defensive.

It’s important to keep in mind that most supervisors avoid giving feedback. Generally this is the case with poor performers as it’s expected they will react negatively – possibly with formal grievances. With a high performer, though, it may be more to do with “don’t break what isn’t broken”.

Making oneself vulnerable to ask for feedback will raise anxiety in even the best of performers. Our natural propensity to protect our self-efficacy causes us to defend our work.

To get the best feedback (and keep getting it when you ask), you’ll want to make sure to avoid seeming defensive. To do this, try sticking to clarification questions. You may want to ask questions like:

  • You’ve said my case is weak. What do you think would make my point stronger?
  • You’ve said some of my presentations are not well-received. What aspects of the briefing do you think are most controversial?
  • You’ve said that my briefing is too long. What would you recommend cutting out to be more to-the-point?

Responses like “I already did that” or “I don’t think that’s really a problem” will make the feedback-giver become defensive themselves. Worse, they may not provide more in the future.

To close the conversation, make sure to thank them for their time and that you appreciate that they gave you feedback.

3. Don’t wait until the performance appraisal to ask.

As you sit in front of your supervisor to receive your end-of-year performance appraisal, there’s very little you can do to change the rating they are giving you. Sure, there’s some administrative steps you can take to contest the rating. But, by having these conversations throughout the year, there may be a number of things you could do to improve the outcome of this review.

Take a moment right now to think about something you are working on. Consider who you can ask for feedback on it. Set up a 15 minute meeting in the next day or two to ask the questions that will help improve whatever it is you are working on.

You may be wondering why you need to ask for feedback before your performance appraisal. Aren’t supervisors supposed to help develop you and make sure you perform to your best? Here is my best answer. If they haven’t been giving you feedback, it’s about time you take control over your situation and your next rating.