Giving your boss honest feedback can feel extremely nerve-wracking. You want to help them improve, but the power dynamics 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.
Tactfully offering your boss critical feedback requires a mix of communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and situational awareness. In this article, we’ll cover the best tactics for providing your manager with effective feedback.
Why You Should Offer Upward Feedback
One study found that 65% of employees report wanting more feedback — and your boss is an employee, too. Employee feedback drives engagement and fosters a forthright company culture. So, if you want to work in a more engaged, candid work environment, don’t withhold upward feedback.
Upward feedback — an employee’s review of their boss’s performance — can help managers improve, as they can learn what’s working for their team, how their actions may be perceived, and what changes might be beneficial in the future.
“Upward reviews often provide leaders with insights that they are not aware of,” explained Roberta Matuson, President of talent consultancy Matuson Consulting and author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. “You can’t change something if you don’t know it’s broken.”
When you give your boss feedback, you help them understand how their leadership style looks from their employees’ point of view. If they think they’re a flexible, accessible manager, but you feel they don’t make time for you, giving them feedback could help improve your working relationship.
Upward reviews can also support your boss’s professional development, as the notes they get from direct reports will likely be different than feedback from their managers and peers. Getting different types of feedback from various sources gives your boss a more complete idea of how to improve.
In 360-degree performance reviews, feedback comes from all directions: peers, managers, direct reports, and more. But you don’t always have to wait until performance review time to share feedback with your manager.
When and How to Give Your Boss Feedback
Before sharing feedback, take a moment to evaluate what you want to say, how best to say it, and how receptive your boss will be. If you have “negative feedback” or what you have to say is coming from frustration, can you pinpoint why you feel that way? To ensure a positive outcome from your feedback conversation, plan how you will share constructive criticism with your boss.
Tact is key when giving feedback, and choosing the right time and place is vital. You don’t want to embarrass your boss in front of others, so a private discussion is best.
Because context and tone can be misread in many of the ways we communicate, giving your boss feedback in person is ideal. If a face-to-face conversation is not possible, consider calling 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 an all-hands or team meeting. Giving feedback is often uncomfortable, but doing it in front of your coworkers is inconsiderate to your boss. 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.
- While your boss is explaining something new to you and your team members. You don’t know all the preparation 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 difficult 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 external stakeholders. 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 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 to ensure open communication. Companies with the strongest feedback cultures leverage one-on-one meetings for feedback, from manager to employee and vice versa.
- During a check-in session before or after a meeting. While giving feedback during a meeting is a bit awkward, before or after are good times to address what went on in the meeting, what you both hope to accomplish going forward, and any feedback.
- During a performance review. Performance reviews are intended to give people an accurate look at how they’re doing. Your constructive feedback is essential for helping your boss improve.
Examples of Upward Feedback
There are a number of topics about which you may need to give your boss feedback. Some of the most popular include: workload, miscommunication, project management, and managing expectations. Here are some scripts and specific examples to get you started.
1. Your Workload
If you’re overwhelmed by work, it can be hard to summon the courage to talk to your manager about burnout. But it’s better for you, your boss, and your team’s performance to be honest about your limits before it becomes a serious problem.
Coming to a one-on-one discussion with solutions-oriented feedback can help you feel prepared and help your boss understand where you’re coming from.
Try these examples for getting the conversation started:
- “I can tackle this, but only if we extend the deadline of [x]. It feels great that you believe I’m the right person for this project, but I’d appreciate more flexibility from you on the timeline.”
- “When you assign high-stakes projects, I feel like a valued team member. But I need more clarity on how to prioritize multiple major projects, and would appreciate us deciding on a timeline together.”
- “You’re great at communicating big ideas, but I could use more detailed explanations for complicated tasks. This project is more complex than I expected, and I would appreciate some support in figuring out how to approach it. How do you recommend I structure it?”
Miscommunication is a part of life, and sometimes bosses say one thing but mean another. When you’re confused about something your boss has said, get the full story, ask them for more information or context, and don’t make assumptions about their motivations.
Try these examples to encourage clearer communication:
- “Can we discuss [x] in more detail? I’m getting mixed messages about [x] and would appreciate some more clarity from you on how to move forward.”
- “I was surprised to hear you speak that way about [x]. I’m not sure what you meant, but I would benefit from some added clarity. Can we discuss?”
3. Project Management
There’s nothing quite as terrifying as having a big project and feeling lost. If you’re getting overwhelmed or aren’t sure how to tackle a project, sharing some upward feedback with your manager can alert them to their oversights or areas for improvement.
Try these examples of upward feedback to help them
- “I’m having some trouble with [x] — I don’t think I’ve received enough training to get the hang of it on my own, and would appreciate more support from you. Could you walk through it with me?”
- “I’m struggling to understand your vision for this assignment. Do you have any templates I can review to make sure I’m on the right track with this project?”
- “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
You might have a super clear idea for a project — and it might be totally different from what your boss expects you to do. But a manager’s role includes making expectations clear and accessible for your work.
Try these scripts for explaining your need for more clarity:
- “What does success look like for [x]? I want to make sure I understand your expectations for [project y], but I haven’t received many details about what you’re expecting.”
- “It seems like you want me to do [x], but I had previously thought this was about [y]. Could we set things straight so that I understand your expectations better?”
- “Can we go over [x] again? I know you told me about it a while ago, but I could use a refresher on the details.”
Tips for Giving Feedback to Your Boss
Finally, the feedback you give should adhere to some simple rules to ensure that it really lands.
- Think about your tone. Sometimes giving feedback can make you feel vulnerable and cause you to get emotional. However, staying calm and neutral can help you deliver your message clearly — and make sure your boss listens to what you have to say.
- Talk in person. It’s hard to read potential cues from tone and body language over Slack, text, or email, and that leaves a lot of room for miscommunication. When possible, it’s better to talk to your boss in person or via video call when it comes to giving manager feedback.
- Address it as soon as possible. While it’s key to speak to your boss in appropriate situations, it’s also important to address problems quickly if you can. Consider it one of the cardinal rules of performance management: When it comes to employee feedback, the sooner you bring up an issue, the easier it is 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.
- Give feedback on one thing at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm your boss with a barrage of feedback, especially if it could be construed as negative. Pick one issue at a time, and only bring up another if it’s connected to the first one.
- Be solution-oriented. Aim to approach the conversation with a helpful attitude rather than pointing out their flaws. After all, you’re trying to help your boss be better at managing, so offer constructive feedback with results in mind.
- Give positive feedback. You probably like it when your hard work is recognized, and your boss appreciates being recognized, too. Be sure to give your boss positive feedback for things you think they do well, like mentoring direct reports or clearly laying out expectations for projects.
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.
When delivered well, feedback can unlock great things in people and at your company. Giving feedback is also one of the hardest skills to master. For more guidance on optimizing your feedback (and receiving it yourself), download our free workbook How to Request, Give, and Receive Feedback.