Managers the world over are fond of saying that they welcome constructive feedback from their teams. Meanwhile, employees the world over are fond of pretending to agree, while privately thinking they’d rather poke a dragon in the eye than criticize their boss.
But sometimes, you just have to speak up. If your supervisor is engaging in behaviors that are having a negative impact on you or your team’s productivity or workplace experience, it’s time to consider giving your boss constructive feedback.
The operative word here is “consider” because it’s crucial to carefully choose what you say, when and how you say it, and what the consequences might be. Below, we’ll get into how to make those choices in order to get the outcome you want without risking your job.
Preparing to Give Your Boss Feedback
There’s no getting around the fact that giving upward feedback is a high-stakes, delicate operation (you’re reading an article about it, after all), so you shouldn’t go into it without doing some preparation.
Give Yourself a Gut Check
Step one in preparing for this interaction is asking yourself whether this is truly the right decision. The answer will depend on your boss’s temperament (are they relaxed or rigid?), your relationship (are you close or virtual strangers?), and if this feedback is truly essential. Only you can answer that last question, but it’s worth considering whether the behavior you have a problem with is just irritating you or actually harming you.
An HBR article on this subject advises that if you’re worried this feedback might damage your relationship or your career, then you should consider alternatives to direct confrontation, like approaching your human resources rep for guidance, or giving anonymous feedback in a 360-degree feedback process.
Use Data When Appropriate
People are often blind to their own patterns of behavior until confronted with evidence about how those patterns affect others. (How many people weren’t washing their hands for the full 20 seconds until scientists told us we needed to do it to save lives?) Used correctly, data can help you shine a light on issues without having to resort to unproductive generalities like “you always do this.”
For instance, if you feel like you’re wasting time on needless meetings, start keeping track of just how many hours you’re spending and how it’s affecting your productivity. If your boss keeps changing deadlines or moving you from one project to another, tell them how often in the past quarter this has happened.
But don’t be obnoxious about it; data isn’t always what’s called for. If the problem is that your boss spends too much time talking in meetings, don’t break out a stopwatch every time they open their mouth.
Rehearse Your Feedback
Your tone and word choice are very important to making this a successful interaction—think about the difference between “distracting” and “obnoxious”—so workshop a few approaches before you deliver your feedback. Practice out loud, and you’ll be able to hear the places where you need to be gentle and the places where you need to be direct.
Be Prepared to Hear Both “Yes” and “No”
It’s always a good idea to imagine multiple different ways a person might respond to feedback, so you can plan how you’ll respond.
Preparing for your boss to say “yes” to your feedback means anticipating that if you bring your boss an idea, they may very well ask you to run with it. For instance, if you think there needs to be a company-wide training on a topic, your manager may heartily agree and then give you the job of organizing it. Consider ahead of time whether you’re ready to take that on.
Preparing for “no” means being ready to disagree without becoming confrontational in the moment. It also means knowing what your personal line in the sand is. If your boss is unwilling to accept feedback on a subject that is very important to you, consider whether it’s time to change jobs.
When and Where to Give Feedback to Your Boss
The time and place you choose to deliver feedback to your boss are nearly as important as the feedback itself. Picking the wrong moment can be disastrous, so it’s crucial to choose a venue in which they’ll be receptive to what you say.
One-on-One Meetings Are Your Best Bet
When it comes to giving feedback, great managers live by the axiom: “praise in public, critique in private.” This motto also applies to team members giving upward feedback, and one-on-ones are the most private and appropriate venues for this kind of interaction.
Hopefully, your boss already asks for feedback on their performance in your one-on-ones. Effective managers encourage radical candor and include questions about how they can better support their team members in their one-on-one agendas. So if you have a request for a change, there’s no better time than when your manager is actively seeking out such feedback. But even if that isn’t part of your manager’s MO, one-on-ones are still a moment when your boss should be most open to stepping back from daily concerns and talking about big-picture issues.
If your one-on-one check-in isn’t for another month, and your feedback can’t wait, schedule a few minutes on their calendar to talk.
The Pros and Cons of Using Emails and Private Messages
If possible, you should try and give your boss feedback face-to-face, so they can respond to your body language and tone of voice. But in-person feedback can also be heart-poundingly intimidating, so if there’s something you need to say, it’s better to communicate it via the written word than stew about it, feeling miserable and saying nothing.
There are advantages to sharing feedback in a written message. For one thing, you can carefully craft your words ahead of time. For another, it can be advantageous to have a written record, especially if the situation feels dicey, and you’re nervous about the fallout of a confrontation. The risk is that your boss may misconstrue your tone, and you won’t be able to tell how they’re reacting in real time. So if you’re going to go this route, go out of your way to use diplomatic language and avoid coming off as brusque.
Don’t Criticize Your Boss in Public
Giving your boss (or any team member, for that matter) unsolicited feedback in the middle of a meeting or a public Slack channel is never a good idea. No matter how non-hierarchical your workplace is or how open your boss is to criticism, they’re still a leader.
So even if your manager asks the team for ideas on how to improve processes, if your idea directly concerns their behavior, approach them about it later.
Techniques for Giving Your Boss Feedback
Giving feedback to your boss requires a high degree of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence boils down telling someone something in a way they are capable of hearing and that doesn’t immediately make them defensive.
Employ Impact Feedback
Impact feedback is an invaluable technique for tricky situations because it doesn’t label specific behaviors as bad or good but frames them in terms of how they affect others.
People (bosses included) tend to get defensive when confronted with their actions but aghast at the thought of those actions hurting someone else. So when bringing up an issue, use “I” statements that frame your feedback in terms of how it impacts you.
“Your all-caps email rants are unprofessional and rude.”
“When I see an all-caps email, it makes me feel like someone is yelling at me, and I get freaked out, even though I’m sure that’s not how you mean it.”
Give Constructive Feedback
Highlight the outcome you’d like to see instead of focusing on your current problem. Come to the meeting with some ideas for solutions, so you can pivot the conversation in a positive, proactive direction.
“I find it really distracting when you hover at my desk making chit-chat.”
“I like chatting with you, but sometimes it comes up with I’m in the middle of some focused work. Is there something I can do to indicate when I’m in the zone and don’t want to be disturbed?”
Don’t Confront Your Boss When You’re Upset
You should deliver all feedback—to your friends, your partner, but especially your boss—in a thoughtful and caring way, not reflexively lashing out in the moment.
Remember, this interaction is about getting the change you need, not venting your frustration. So even if your boss’s habit of blasting EDM for an hour every Friday drives you up the proverbial wall, wait until Monday before raising the issue. (They wouldn’t be able to hear you over the bass drop anyway.)
Grow Your Working Relationship Through Feedback
Here’s the thing: as scary as it can feel to raise issues with your boss, it’s also the only way you have to fix those issues. After all, your boss can’t solve a problem they don’t know about. Even if you get a new boss, they’ll have quirks of their own, and you’ll still be left with the same underlying problem if you’re too intimidated to speak up.
Giving feedback is a muscle you have to work out. And if you don’t feel comfortable advocating for your own needs at work, you’re going to start feeling disconnected from the place and the people you spend the most time with.
Facing conflict and friction are an indispensable part of building a relationship of real trust. So the next time your manager says they welcome your feedback, trust them enough to believe it.