Yes, you read that right: how to give your boss feedback. It’s called “upward feedback”, and there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, any good boss should make their employees feel that they’re able to voice their concerns.
In reality, however, most bosses don’t like it. It makes them feel insecure and it pokes a hole in what they thought was a safe bubble of boss-dom where they could never be criticized. Only you can truly know whether or not your boss is likely to be receptive of feedback, but even if you think they would be, you need to be careful about how you do it, which is what this article is here to help you with.
As you may have guessed, even a great relationship with your boss can be damaged by doing this the wrong way: just because you have the power to give feedback doesn’t mean you should forget your place. Always approach the subject carefully, always handle it sensitively, and if you know your boss won’t take it well, put some serious thought into whether it needs to be said.
1. Gauge the Relationship
The better your relationship, and the more trust there is between you, the easier this will be. It makes them more likely to be receptive and it makes you that little bit less scared of doing it. However, even if you’re great friends, you still need to take caution: don’t do it in public and don’t do it without preparing if you don’t want to risk hurting their credibility or losing their trust. Additionally, you should do it alone so they don’t feel like they’re being ambushed.
If your relationship is good, then you need to say what’s on your mind and you need to give it to them straight. That doesn’t mean the blow shouldn’t still be softened – perhaps by combining negative feedback with positive – but it will be easier for them to realize that you’re doing it with the best of intentions. Make it clear that you’re just trying to help and ensure that your message is clearly received.
If your relationship is bad, or they’re known for not taking bad news well, then pick your battles. Is it really a big enough issue for you to risk the consequences? If no, let it go. If yes, consider giving the feedback anonymously or going through HR; it’s a better idea than having a conversation that could hurt you.
2. Prepare Them for It
How did you feel the last time you received negative feedback and you weren’t expecting it? Not good. Or, if you’ve ever received it without warning, then you know that the recipient should always be forewarned. Negative feedback is bad enough, but receiving it when you don’t know it’s coming makes you defensive – and once you’re defensive, you aren’t going to learn anything from it.
If your boss asks you for feedback, beware: they’re probably looking for feedback on something specific, not your laundry list of everything that’s been bothering you. Ask exactly what they want feedback about, ask questions to check your assumptions, and then arrange a meeting to discuss it.
If your boss doesn’t ask, then offer first. Ask if they would like some feedback, or ask to schedule a meeting to discuss what’s on your mind. If you tell them you want to discuss tardiness – rather than how you hate that they’re late every morning – they could start acknowledging their constant tardiness and begin setting a better example even before you get to the meeting. Asking permission shows that you respect their authority and you recognize that they have the right to refuse to hear what you have to say.
3. Stick to the Facts
If you’re looking to give feedback rather than start an argument, then you should make sure that what you’re saying is constructive rather than accusatory. Think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and write it down on paper that you can then destroy to avoid it being made public: this will help you to stay focused, and get it right.
Stick to the facts and things that you’ve personally seen or heard, not just what you think "should" have been done or that they were "wrong" because it wasn’t how the old boss did things; every boss has their own style and you need to learn to respect that. Instead, find a way to prove that the problem is somehow keeping them from their goal. For example, they may want everyone to behave in a certain way but are failing as a role model. Start a conversation about behavior, confirm how they want you to behave, and then get them thinking about whether their own behavior matches that ideal. Make it seem less personal and less of an attack by asking them to set a good example.
Giving feedback should always be about helping the other person in some way. Talking about an issue is helpful; using the session as a chance to get revenge on some bad feedback you received is not. Make sure you can back up everything with details and facts, and keep it professional, and things will go a lot smoother.
4. Remember They're Human, Too
Just as you don’t love getting feedback, neither does the friendliest or most open-minded boss, because it hurts. That’s why all feedback should be handled as delicately as possible, with positive feedback and solutions rather than finger-pointing and accusations. Think of giving negative feedback like making a sandwich: give a compliment, give the negative feedback, and then give another compliment. The easier you make it for them to hear, the more successful the session will be.
Make sure you’re focusing on the issue and not the person. Your grievances with your boss as a person should be saved for when you’re venting with your friends; this feedback session should be about the broader issues and how their behavior is affecting the bigger picture. You want them to understand that you’re trying to help them achieve goals that you also believe in.
Most people will appreciate your feedback far more if you’re open and honest than if you sugarcoat it so much they can’t even understand you. That’s why you need to be prepared: the better prepared you are to state all the facts and give concrete examples and details, the better you will be understood and received. If you’re talking about something that they don’t realize they’ve done, then you need to begin by reminding them of the situation, like that time they criticized your colleague in public and caused them to stop participating in the meeting.
Unless your boss is an unreasonable monster – in which case your feedback should be filtered through HR, or you should perhaps consider moving on to a company where you can speak your mind – then they will not only be open to feedback but appreciate it, too. Any good boss will make you feel comfortable enough to give your opinions on the understanding that you won’t abuse that power by going about it the wrong way. Keep it civil, keep it professional, and always plan both your words and your timing so your feedback isn’t given either too late to be acted on or at a terrible time for the company.
Have you ever given feedback to your boss? Has your boss ever asked you for feedback? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below!