“What should I do if my manager gives me only positive feedback?” We often hear a variation of this question when we present “Feedback Jiu-Jitsu: The Art of Receiving Feedback”. Receiving positive feedback sounds like a dream come true. Yet, it can be hard to grow from positive feedback.
Our objective with Feedback Jiu-Jitsu is to help people take any feedback and use it for their benefit. We focus on helping people receive feedback graciously and then act on it visibly, particularly when it is difficult feedback. What can you do when the feedback is vague or positive? By “positive”, I mean feedback that doesn’t cause you to get defensive or feel threatened. There are two main ways you can address this situation: 1) Be more specific in your request, and 2) Find the strengths you can build on.
Be More Specific in Your Request
Be more specific about what you would like feedback on. In “What Is Your Best Advice for Me?”, I share some examples of how to make a question more specific. Being more specific reduces the cognitive load of the person being asked because they don’t have to try to think about all the interactions they had with you. They can focus their thoughts on interactions or observations that are more likely to lead to more specific feedback. The question also changes the feel of the request by making it less threatening for the feedback giver to share their feedback. They won’t be as worried that you might take offense at the feedback.
Find Strengths You Can Build on
I touch briefly on this principle in “Six Guiding Principles for Receiving Feedback”, and Trevor Johnson addresses it in “Should I Focus my Development Efforts on my Strengths or Weaknesses?”. As mentioned there, Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder 2.0) is very much focused on this concept of understanding and building on your strengths. If you receive only positive feedback when you request it, this is an opportunity to identify those potential strengths that you can leverage.
Of course, if the feedback is still too vague, like, “You’re doing great! Just keep it up.”, then as mentioned above, you need to be more specific in your request. You might follow up with a question like one of these for clarification.
Examples of Questions For Clarification
- “Thank you. I’m happy to know that. What actions or tasks that I’m doing are the most helpful?”
- “Thank you. I’m trying to do well, but I’d also like to make sure I’m focusing my efforts on what matters most. In which area am I making the biggest difference for you and/or our department? Where do you think I could have a bigger impact?”
- “Thank you. I feel like it’s most important for me to focus on X and further develop my skill in this area. Would you agree or advise otherwise?”
- “Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that. Which skills or attributes that I bring to the team come to your mind when you say that I’m doing great?”
- “Thank you. I’ll try to ‘keep it up’ as you suggest. But I feel like I’m doing many different things and want to lean into what is working most. Which of my skills or traits would you recommend I lean into in order to ‘keep it up’?”
Notice that all of these begin with “Thank you”. Whether you are receiving positive or negative feedback, you should always thank the feedback giver if you want them to continue giving feedback in the future. Also, most of those suggestions have room to be even more specific by stating a specific task or skill for the person to respond about.
If the person doesn’t provide additional clarification, you could still say, “Thank you. It is really helpful to know that I’m meeting your expectations. If I don’t meet your expectations on a project, please let me know what I could do differently to meet them.” This signals to them how you are perceiving their response and lets them know you are open to their input, should their opinion change.
Ultimately, we all want to receive praise and know that we are doing well, but we also want to grow. If your manager—or anybody else—gives you vague or positive feedback when requested, try rephrasing the request with more specificity and try to determine what skills or traits they have in mind. That way you can build on those strengths that cause them to respond positively.