Employee Feedback

How to Give Your Boss Feedback Without Sounding Like a Jerk

November 6, 2019
June 23, 2022
Lattice Team

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.

How Not to Give Feedback 

Let's take the example of Lattice employee Anne. Anne ran into this issue during a training session at a previous job where she worked as a flight attendant for a major airline. The head instructor and manager was talking to Anne and her fellow flight attendant trainees about the strict policies they needed to follow.

Airlines have notoriously convoluted yet strict guidelines, policies, and processes. During the session, Anne’s manager told the group 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, feeling as though her coworkers would obviously agree with her point of view.

Unfortunately, this did not sit well with the instructor, who referred Anne to their 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 she went about asking her question offended the instructor.

Why You Should Give Your Boss Feedback

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 have 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 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 and How to Give Your Boss 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 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.

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. Watch your tone — sometimes giving feedback can make you feel 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 speak to your boss in appropriate situations (as we wrote about above), it’s also important to keep 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 bring it up, 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.
  • 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 interrelated or connected to the first one.
  • 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.
  • Give positive feedback, too. Just as you probably like to know that you’ve done a job well, your boss will appreciate it, too. Be sure to give them positive feedback for things like clearly laying out expectations for a project or pushing back a deadline so you don’t feel overwhelmed. 

Scripts for Upward Feedback

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 for addressing your workload:

  • “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.

Try these scripts for gaining 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. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or not sure how to tackle structuring it, it’s time to seek out some advice. 

Try these scripts to ask for help with project management: 

  • “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

You might have a super clear idea for a specific project — and it might be totally different from what your boss expects you to do. Make sure your thoughts and theirs are in line so you don’t end up with a nasty surprise. 

Try these scripts for 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.