Vague feedback is worse than no feedback

Dear Joan:

During my performance review, my boss told me I had to improve my communications skills and I had better improve my interpersonal relationships with my coworkers. 

He mentioned several specific people, who he said I had problems working with, none of whom I think I have a problem with. In fact, I enjoy working with those people! 

I asked my boss if he had any suggestions for how I could improve my skills and relationships; he had no advice and said it was up to me.  

What am I to think? Do you have any suggestions in this case? 


Vague feedback usually causes defensiveness and paranoia. Your boss may think he’s done his job by giving you this feedback but he has made the situation worse. 

Go back to your manager and say, “I’ve given a lot of thought to your comments about improving my communications and relationships with my coworkers. I really want to work on this but I’m going to need your help. I’ve always enjoyed working with these people and I’m not aware of any problems. If you can be more specific about what I’m doing, it would help me figure out how to change. Without knowing more specifics, I’m at a loss as to what to do.” 

If he seems reluctant, it’s probably because he’s worried about revealing who said what. He probably fears your reaction and doesn’t want to make things worse. Unfortunately, by playing this vague guessing game, he is indeed making things worse. How can you help but feel paranoid, knowing others aren’t happy with you but not knowing what you are doing to cause it? 

If he continues to be vague, say, “I realize you are reluctant to share details with me, but I can assure you I will not use the information against anyone. Whatever I’m doing, I’m not aware of it, so I’d rather know what it is, even if it’s personal or sensitive.” 

If he finally does tell you something that upsets you or you don’t agree with, you can’t overreact. Do not launch into your rationale about why they misinterpreted your actions or refute their perceptions with a counterattack. It will only confirm his worse fears and make him withdraw and withhold more feedback.  

Depending on what it is, you may need to go back to your coworkers and ask them for help. You could say, “I received some feedback from my manager that I need to work on my communications skills. He hasn’t given me many specifics. I was hoping you could help me. Do you have any advice for me on how I could improve?” Try drawing out your peers just like you did with your manager, by reassuring them you are open to the feedback and won’t overreact. 

If it becomes clear that your coworkers are not likely to be straight with you (for example, they may be so afraid of confronting you so they’ve asked your boss not to reveal what they have told him), you will have to take a more subtle, sideways approach. 

For example, you could approach each of the peers your manager mentioned and say, “My goal for the coming year is to work on my communications skills. Could you help me by giving me some advice? For instance, what could I do more of? What should I do less of? What works, that I should keep the same?” They may be willing to help you with general advice about what “others” think, even though it is their own opinion they are really voicing. 

As long as you continue to stay open and genuine in identifying and working on your behaviors, people around you should start opening up. If you get advice about something you should change, ask, “What do you think I should do that would be more effective?” Then, once you’ve agreed to try the new behavior, thank the person and say, “Would you be willing to give me ongoing feedback when you see that I am doing this well—or need a reminder? I would really help me to have you as a behind-the-scenes coach.” 

If this non-defensive approach fails, I’m afraid your colleagues are too conflict averse to help you. It’s difficult to work in an environment where you have to second-guess every move and guard every word. In time, if you continue to get this smoke and mirrors feedback, you may want to pack it up and look for more honest, straightforward workplace.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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