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Targeted feedback: the key to career success

Jim Ice, EdD -

We all dread it - that performance review. So much career success or failure appears to be based on this single discussion. Will we get a raise this year? Will we get that promotion we feel we have earned?  Will our boss recognize the contributions we have made this past year?

Employees and managers alike consistently report that the performance review is one of the most difficult aspects of their work life. "Performance feedback" has gotten a bad reputation as a high-pressure, high-consequence single discussion that's often tied to disappointment and frustration. 

Ironically, high performers perceive targeted performance feedback as key to their career development. They understand that gathering and applying feedback enhances their reputation and advances their skills and careers. So let's explore how you too can leverage targeted feedback as a critical tool in helping you meet your career aspirations.

Take Control

The first stepping in using feedback for success is to take personal control of all feedback related to your performance. You must realize that this is not only your accountability, but your right. Never leave the gathering and delivering of performance feedback entirely to your manager - as is often the case in the typical performance management processes. Create a plan for gathering feedback from your manager. Taking control of the feedback process allows you to own the output and decide how you will use it.

You are the individual most invested in this feedback, so own it. Just as you should never give complete control of your money to your accountant, so too should you never give the accountability for your career to someone else. When you assume responsibility for gathering performance feedback on yourself, you can ensure a focus on your needs and opportunities to advance your career.     

Know your Goals

To get the most value out of feedback, you must first clearly articulate what you are trying to accomplish. Feedback is intended to help you focus, chart and correct your course. But if the destination is unclear, feedback at best is general information that may or may not help you move toward your desired destination.

Consider your career goals in two buckets: outcomes and performance. Too often employees focus solely on career outcomes, such as being promoted within a year, elevating to a manager or moving into sales - versus the more important element of building performance capabilities and closing performance gaps.

It is shocking how many employees believe that time is the deciding factor that signals to leadership that you are ready for the next step. "I have been here 18 months, so I deserve a raise," or "I have been here longer than John, so I deserve the promotion." Time is a measure of how long you've had the opportunity to build your capabilities and demonstrate your value. It is your performance over this time period, however, that is the measure your manager will use to determine your value as an employee. As you articulate your desired career outcomes, carefully consider the skills you want to leverage - and then develop a plan for how you want to build then apply your unique capabilities. Start with your desired long-term career outcomes. Next, consider your current and desired performance capabilities. Then determine how you will grow toward these aspirational goals in your current and desired next role. Start five years out and work backwards to today.

Identify the Critical Few

Once you have taken ownership for your own feedback, articulated your desired career outcomes, and considered the capabilities it will require to achieve these goals, you are ready to identify whose feedback will help you get there. This is a very important step in using feedback as a career tool, because who you ask will often dictate the type of feedback you will receive.  The objective is to identify just enough people and perspectives to help, but not so many as to water down the value of what you receive. Here are a few things to consider when selecting someone to give you feedback:

  • Will they be (brutally) honest and out for your best interests?
  • Do they have a direct observation of your performance?
  • Do they know and represent the outcome or capabilities on which you seek feedback?
  • Will their insight provide you with a different perspective (than your own)?
  • Can you leverage this feedback process to build an important relationship?

This is hard work. It is easy to seek out those with whom we share a lot in common, but much tougher to approach those whose perspective and input will benefit you most. One obvious choice is your direct manager. They not only share an accountability for your performance, they also hold the insight into what comes next for you and how you can best prepare. They may not have the expertise on the performance areas for which you seek feedback, but your inquiry demonstrates your interest in personal growth and willingness to listen. Ask for their feedback off-cycle to the performance review so that their feedback at review time never takes you by surprise. 

Another great individual to gather performance feedback from is your "skip level" manager, your boss's boss, since he or she will have insight into other roles across the department and company. Project team members, peers, and other departmental leaders are also great sources for performance feedback. If you are a manager, be sure to include some direct reports as well. Additionally, individuals who do not work within your company are a great source of performance and career feedback. Consider asking key customers, suppliers, or other industry professionals with whom you have worked and respect. The objective is to gather data on the perceptions that others have about your performance from those most equipped to evaluate your performance.       

Ask Targeted Questions

So what questions do you ask to gather useful information? It depends on your target outcomes and goals, but a great place to start is to ask about their experiences in working with you. This could include asking for feedback on a task you completed for them, their perception of your abilities based on time working together, or an evaluation of how well they feel you have collaborated with them.

Here are three simple questions that are at the root of almost any feedback request:

  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue to do?
  • What should I start doing?

While you can add more detail to these questions to explore specific situations, behaviors and outcomes, these core questions will provide you with valuable insight and perspective on your performance.

One additional and very critical point to consider is our human tendency to focus most on our weaknesses when soliciting feedback. While it is important to know where we miss the mark, it is more important to understand the areas where others perceive us as excelling.

Research presented from the Gallup organization, an international polling and consulting company, indicates that leveraging our strengths is what can lead to long-term career success. While it is enticing to want to focus on how to fill our performance or skill gaps, it is more important to get a clear understanding of our strengths so that we can leverage them in making both personal and career decisions - the reason we are gathering this feedback in the first place.  The truth is, although we can improve in areas where we are weak, these areas rarely become strengths. Build techniques to help you address your weaknesses (such as partnering with others with that skill) but focus most of your energy on understanding and developing your success.  Remember, while we may desire to address each gap - this takes significant time and energy.  There are some gaps that must be filled to successfully execute your current or desired role.  However, it is our strengths that differentiate us.

So, acknowledge and address weaknesses, but invest in and leverage your strengths for career success!  

Have Courage to Listen

The last and perhaps hardest step in collecting performance feedback is to have the personal courage to listen. Feedback is a gift. When humbly accepted, it helps us improve and grow.  However, it is so easy to discount, justify and dismiss feedback that makes us feel uncomfortable, sad or angry. These emotional reactions are our mind's way of protecting itself from ridicule and embarrassment. Ironically, these same emotional reactions provide us with an important clue to what is actually true. If the feedback hurts, consider it carefully; it most likely is true. Some statistics report that our average speaking speed is 125 words per minute. However, our ability to process what others are saying is around 400 words per minute. Therefore, when collecting performance feedback, it is very easy to get ahead of the speaker, to be assuming, justifying or discounting the feedback before it's delivered. It takes courage and patience to focus and actively listen to another's insights and perspectives.   

However, not all feedback will be true and entirely accurate since some people may have a limited or biased view of your performance. Your accountability is simple - to carefully consider what is said and its implications for your personal career development and, of course, to thank the individual for their input. Ultimately, each individual decides what to do with the feedback they receive. Listen carefully before you consider discarding feedback.    

It takes courage to ask for feedback. It takes even more courage to actively listen to feedback. And it takes even greater courage to take action based on the feedback you receive. But it's that courage that leads to career success.

Good luck!

Learn more about getting your career moving. Visit Carlow University's College of Professional Studies at


About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he's served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success. 
Contact: Jim Ice, EdD