It can be extremely nerve-wracking to give feedback to your manager or boss (also known as giving "upward feedback"). You want to provide input so that they can improve, but the power dynamics of your working relationship can make an already delicate action seem loaded with potential pitfalls.
Plus, there are so many stories of feedback gone wrong, it's hard to know how to even approach doing it the right way.
Let's take the example of Anne. Anne ran into this issue at a previous job when she worked as a flight attendant at a major airline. During a training session with other flight attendants, where their head instructor and manager was talking about the strict policies they needed to follow.
Airlines have notoriously convoluted yet strict guidelines, policies, and processes. During class, Anne’s manager told Anne and her fellow flight attendant trainees about one of these particularly ill-constructed policies. Anne was so nonplussed by it that she raised her hand, questioned the reasoning of the policy, and laughed a bit at its’ ridiculousness. She felt as though her coworkers would obviously agree with her point of view.
Unfortunately, this did not sit well with the instructor, who referred the employee to the instructor’s higher-up — who then dressed her down for her constant questioning of policies.
If stories like this make you cringe, you’re not alone. But it’s worth noting that the problem here isn’t necessarily that Anne questioned her instructor or the policy, it’s that she did so in public. In this venue, the instructor was unsurprisingly disinclined to discuss the subject with her; even worse, the way the Lattice employee went about asking her question offended the instructor.
1. Why feedback
2. When & how to give feedback
3. Feedback Tips
In Anne’s case, treating the situation a little more delicately and bringing up her concerns in a more private manner would have made a world of difference. In hindsight, Anne believed that the instructor would’ve felt more comfortable if she’d had reached out to them after the training session and had a one on one feedback conversation, instead.
So, before giving feedback, take a moment to evaluate what you want to say, how best to say it, and how receptive your boss will be to it. If you have "negative feedback" or what you have to say is coming from a frustration with something, can you pinpoint why you feel that way?
Also, be aware of how best to give feedback to your boss, both regarding how they as an individual might take it, and what, if any, methods your organization has in place for you to do so.
When & how to give feedback
Remember that tact is key when giving feedback. The time and place are vital; firstly, because you don’t want to experience what Anne went through, and secondly, because context and tone can be misread in many of the ways we communicate.
Giving your feedback in person is ideal, but if that’s simply not possible, call them on the phone rather than emailing or messaging them via IM or Slack.
Places where it’s not okay to give feedback to your boss:
- During a company-wide or team meeting. Giving feedback is often uncomfortable, but doing it in front of all your coworkers is cringe-inducing. Even if the critique comes to you, and it’s tempting to say something in the moment, it’s unlikely your boss will be able to really listen and absorb the information if you’re embarrassing them in front of the whole company. Hey, your boss has feelings too.
- When your boss is explaining something new to you and your team members. You don’t know all the context and work that your boss may have put into whatever new idea or system they’re looking to implement, and you don't want to question it in front of the whole team. Even if it seems hard to start out, you don’t know all the work your boss may have put into creating it.
- When in a meeting with a client or contractor. It’s better to show a united front in these cases, because you both have the same goal, even if you’re not yet sure how to both accomplish it.
Places where it is okay to give feedback to your boss:
- During a one-on-one. One of the main reasons to have a one-on-one is for you to give your boss feedback.
- During a check-in session before or after a meeting. While in the meeting it’s a bit awkward, right before or after are the perfect times to address what went on in the meeting, what you both hope to accomplish going forward, and any feedback during the discussion.
- During a performance review. Performance reviews are intended to give people an accurate look at how they’re doing. Your constructive feedback is essential in helping your boss improve.
Finally, the feedback you give should adhere to some simple rules to ensure that it really lands.
- Think about your tone. Watch your tone — sometimes giving feedback can make you vulnerable, and cause you to get emotional. However, staying calm and neutral is more beneficial to making sure you’re heard.
- Talk in person. This is also why it’s better to talk to your boss in person when it comes to feedback. It’s hard to read potential cues from tone and body language, and therefore the importance of the message, over Slack, text, or email. There’s a lot of room for miscommunication.
- Address it as soon as possible. While it’s key to address your boss in appropriate situations (as we wrote about above), it’s also important to the make the time between the start of an annoying pattern or behavior and you addressing it as short as possible. Don't wait for, say, annual reviews: the sooner you address it, the easier it’ll be for your boss to stop the behavior.
- Focus on work. Stay focused on the work: give feedback on the impact your boss’s habits or actions have, and don’t make it about them personally.
- Be solutions-oriented. Try to approach the conversation with a helpful attitude: after all, you’re trying to help your boss be better at managing; it’s really all about that team effort.
There are a number of topics about which you may need to give your boss feedback. Some of the most popular include: your workload, (mis)communication, project management, and managing expectations.
1. Your workload.Your workload can be difficult to manage, and burnout is real. It can be scary to realize you’re overwhelmed, or on the verge of being so. But in the end, it’s better for you, your boss, and your company to be honest about your limits, before it becomes a serious problem. Coming to the discussion with your boss with some solutions or adjustments will make you feel prepared and help your boss realize how much thought you’ve put into the situation.
Try these scripts and solutions:
- “I can take this on, but only if we extend the deadline of [x].”
- “I can’t take this on with how time sensitive project [y] is. Can you help me prioritize?”
- “This project is more complex than I expected. How do you recommend I structure it?”
2. Miscommunication. It may be obvious that communication is key, but it’s one of the biggest things that falls through the cracks. Get the full story, ask them for more information or context, and don’t make assumptions about their motivations. Here are a couple ways to gain more clarity:
- “Can we discuss [x] in more detail? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
- “I was surprised to hear you speak that way about [x]. Can we discuss that?”
3. Project Management. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as having a big project and feeling lost. Thankfully asking for help with project management can be simple:
- “I’m having some trouble with [x] -- could you walk through the program with me?”
- “This project is a bit more than I expected. How were you thinking to structure it?”
- “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by [x]. Do you have any best practices for managing this that I might be able to test out?”
4. Managing Expectations. Make sure your thoughts for a specific project are in line with what your boss is thinking. Here are some examples for managing expectations and making sure you’re on the same page:
- “What does success look like for [x]? I want to make sure I understand your expectations for [project y].”
- “It seems like you want me to do [x], but I had I previously thought this was about [y]. Is that correct?”
- “Can we go over [x] again?”
Giving your boss feedback can be stressful, but it’s providing them with valuable information, and it's beneficial to you both. They’ll become better at their job, and you’ll be able to better address your needs as their direct report. If you keep all this in mind, you can avoid coming off like a jerk.