Want to Get Ahead at Work? Embrace This Excruciating Task

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What's the hardest emotional labor you perform at your job?

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For many of us, seeking constant feedback from our managers and peers, and acting on that feedback, is one of the most excruciating tasks we associate with our work.

But why should this be so? A few moments of thought will clarify that soliciting regular performance input can help you boost your potential by quickly highlighting your areas of ability -- and those that need improvement. If you seek to understand how your performance is viewed by others, you can shave off valuable time in your career learning curve. And frank discussions about your positive and negative traits and characteristics can lead to a deeper and more meaningful work relationship with your manager and peers.

Why seeking out feedback is so difficult

Humans possess a tendency which can block us from useful actions in the workplace unless we consciously consider it. Self-preservation, which manifests itself in our "fight or flight" response to sudden and acute danger, is the mother of all instincts.

Yet it's also the mechanism by which a hundred other less obvious and less helpful behaviors arise. Behaviors such as conflict avoidance, risk aversion, and a desire not to hear words that may wound our psyche can all be traced back to this primordial need to preserve the self and keep living.

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Are you willing to consciously thwart an instinct which is uber-useful in the wilderness but maybe not so constructive at work? Ready to brave the cringe you might experience on hearing criticism, even when it's kindly relayed?

The following are four types of feedback which you can initiate and/or embrace to ensure that you have an objective window into your job performance, allowing you to distill the most from your work hours and move ahead.

1. The project check-in

In the workflow of most organizations, there are tasks (which never quite leave your desk no matter how successful you become), and there are more meaningful levels of work: projects. Significant projects can last a few days or weeks.

After each significant project, develop a habit of asking your manager (or project manager in a team effort) if there's anything he or she feels worthy of comment -- good or bad. For "big picture" projects, which may run into months and are of high importance in your department, schedule a short meeting with your manager after completion to understand how well you met your objectives, and what you could optimize next time around.

2. The coffee debriefing

Once every business quarter, request an hour of your boss's time to grab a coffee and get the lowdown on your job performance. Come prepared with questions, both open-ended ("OK, level with me. How am I doing?"), and specific. You can ask specific questions both about problem areas and about opportunities you'd like to pursue. The idea is to keep the tone casual yet productive.

If your organization is one of the many that enforce only a once-yearly performance review, the coffee debriefing is a wonderful tool to show your initiative and desire to improve to your supervisor, while getting clear-eyed feedback in an informal setting. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most effective feedback mechanism you can initiate; its regularity gives you reference points to track progress, while opening a channel of performance communication with the person closest to your work.

3. The performance huddle

As its name implies, the performance huddle is a short group meeting -- sometimes as short as five to 15 minutes -- that gives team members a chance to quickly dissect a completed project. Groups that engage in frequent performance huddles often find themselves holding these quick but effective meetings in the midstream of projects, to work out kinks or share innovations.

Be the person on your team known for calling performance huddles. Doing so shows leadership, and eventually makes it easier to get valuable, direct, one-on-one feedback from co-workers when you really need it.

4. The (brace yourself) formal yearly performance review

I'll confess, in a long career in accounting and consulting in which I've both managed and been managed, this is the type of review I hate most to give or receive. There are good reasons that both parties in a yearly performance review find the task onerous. The reviewer must speak on behalf of the organization, regardless of his or her personal working relationship with the employee. And due to the infrequency of the formal review -- especially given a typical lack of other feedback mechanisms -- both sides may be out of practice working through the tense balance of positives and negatives that these reviews often entail, generally within one long, drawn-out session. Worst of all, this is usually the only time the all-important topic of compensation gets seriously addressed, and in this dynamic, the employee rarely has the upper hand.

Nonetheless, focus on what's important in this setting. You need to understand from your reviewer how you can best build value in your department and organization. You must know what your managers most appreciate in you, and what they most wish they could change in your behavior. Finally, as I've tried to indicate throughout, embrace the takeaways from this meeting, however painful they might seem at the time. Work both on your superpowers, and on those deficiencies that you know you must own.

And within three months, mention to your supervisor how you think you've improved, during the quarterly coffee debriefing that you very conscientiously scheduled.

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