How to Give Your Boss Feedback at Work

How to Give Your Boss Feedback at Work

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Giving honest feedback can be scary no matter who you’re talking to. It always involves risk, to some extent, but the stakes usually feel highest when we feel the need to offer candid upward feedback, like to a manager, senior executive, or other authority figure. In this article, we’ll take a look at the reasons why giving your boss feedback is worth it, as well as give you a few tips on how to do it with confidence, skill, and kindness.

Why giving and receiving feedback is important — for everyone

Everybody has blind spots, and leaders are no exception.

In an ideal company culture, every person — from entry level all the way up to the C-suite — has a circle of trusted work relationships they can rely on for honesty. But it’s lonely at the top. The higher someone rises in an organization, the less likely they are to receive candid input. This limits their personal and professional growth. And that affects the organization, and everyone in it.

Fortunately, the winds of change are blowing. There’s a strong movement to establish feedback cultures where feedback flows up, down, and across the org on a regular basis.

How to give your boss feedback: high-level strategy

So what’s the smartest way to have difficult conversations with your boss?

Focus on the relationship first

First of all, set yourself up for success by genuinely prioritizing your relationship. Well-received critical feedback runs on trust. Your supervisor needs to know that:

  1. You truly care about them as a person, and about their goals, their success, and burdens.
  2. Your insight into their behavior is valuable – fact-based, insightful, timely, and given from an attitude of concern.

You’re most likely to earn the right to be heard if you have history together, built on well-established patterns of conversation. The goal is for honest feedback to be a routine part of your relationship.

The goal is for honest feedback to be a routine part of your relationship with your boss.

In an ideal situation, your boss has already taken the lead in setting up a rhythm of one-on-one Sync-Ups and quarterly Check-Ins. If not, you may have to “manage up” and get the ball rolling. Here’s what working your way toward those conversations looks like.

Set up a regular place and time for weekly 1-on-1 Sync-Ups

If you aren’t already having regular chats with your manager, start by asking to meet together, face to face, at least every other week. (Weekly is ideal.)

Use these one-on-one meetings to talk through challenges and blockers, share updates on projects and quarterly goals, build rapport by chatting about life outside of work, and keep the lines of communication open about morale, culture, and career aspirations.

Consider collaborating on the agenda before each meeting. A shared template can be helpful. (We’ve got templates you can download for three different meeting frameworks: agenda-based, goaling approach, and the “stop, start, continue” model.) And be sure to take notes so that you remember details for the next talk.

Why weekly Sync-Ups?

This regular structure provides opportunities for mentoring, makes performance reviews easier, boosts employee engagement, and allows for more effective employee feedback between managers and their direct reports. It also supplies workers the opportunity to give their boss feedback in a relaxed setting.

If your manager isn’t so sure about prioritizing regular one-on-one meetings, consider sharing (or have your HR team share) The Ultimate Guide to 1-on-1s for Managers.

Create a fearless feedback culture

As you set up the habit of Sync-Ups, let your manager know that you’d love to share feedback both ways in every meeting.

If you’re already in the habit of having one-on-one meetings, but continuous feedback hasn’t been a part of the process yet, look for a moment when there’s a change coming — a new goal cycle, a new client, or maybe a new project — and ask if it would be helpful for you to offer effective feedback along the way. Let your manager know how valuable their continual input is to you too. Do a little reading beforehand and be ready to share the benefits of a mutual feedback culture. Lay out the business case for exchanging insight freely and consistently.

If your desire is not (genuinely) to help, then you probably need to hold off. Remember, you aren’t grading your boss, calling out their injustices or failures, or shaming them. You’re seeking to benefit them and make them a better leader.

If your boss is unsure about the idea of reciprocal feedback, you might introduce them to How to Create a Feedback Culture.

10 tips for giving your boss feedback

Ok, so you’ve got the time and place. You’ve got the rhythm down. You’ve built the rapport. How do you actually frame feedback so it’s effective?

Here are a few tips to get you moving in the right direction.

  1. Determine your end goal. What specific aspect of your manager’s performance needs to change? Have a concrete objective in mind so that your communication is concise and clear.
  2. Check your motives. If your desire is not (genuinely) to help, then you probably need to hold off. Remember, you aren’t grading your boss, calling out their injustices or failures, or shaming them. You’re seeking to benefit them and make them a better leader.
  3. Stick to the one issue you’ve decided to address. Watch our for scope creep. Don’t let your feedback session bring out a laundry list of items that have been on your mind for months. It will make your boss feel defensive. Instead, focus on resolving the most immediate issue successfully, chalk up the win, and pick another issue for next week.
  4. Be timely. It’s the same principle as giving recognition: Fresh is best. Unless you’re a time traveler, you can’t solve an issue that happened three months ago. Give insight on things that are happening now that your manager can fix now. Otherwise, you’re just griping, which is a recipe for your boss shutting down and not being receptive.
  5. Practice beforehand. Think about how it will sound from your manager’s point of view. You might even run it by a trusted friend (who doesn’t work with you). Take a look at some good feedback examples to get a game plan.
  6. Remember to address behavior and impact, instead of guessing motives. For example, “When you do X, Y happens.” Connect the dots between their behavior and the direct results. Avoid labeling your manager with an adjective — “You are X.” Stick to pure facts, and whenever possible, be prepared to offer solutions.
  7. Provide specific examples of the issue for illustration. But avoid heaping them on to excess.
  8. Document your feedback conversations. This helps both of you stay accountable and follow up. (In a worst-case scenario, it also helps you avoid retribution.)
  9. Accept that this is hard work. It takes courage to confront a manager, especially if your relationship isn’t great. Remind yourself of “the why,” that everyone will benefit from your bravery — you included.
  10. Don’t forget positive feedback. THIS ONE’S BIG. You know how it feels so good to be recognized for doing such a great job? You’re not the only one who appreciates that. Positive feedback is just as important as constructive feedback. So offer affirmations generously. Extend empathy. Take note when your manager shoulders extra burdens, when they’ve achieved something great, or when they’ve done a great  job guiding you or your team members — and say something.

Managing up through receiving feedback well

One way you can “manage up” is by setting a great example in receiving feedback. Here are a few strategies to practice:

  1. Assume your manager’s best intent. Believe that they truly mean to help you.
  2. Gain clarity on the ask and deliverables. What behavior does your boss want to see from you? By when? What does success look like? Do you have the skills and resources you need to do it? If not, work it out together. Take notes, and review at the end of the feedback session to make sure you’re on the same page.
  3. Resist the urge to argue or reciprocate — just listen. It’s impossible to hear somebody if you’re busy saying, “Well, you do X, Y, and Z too!” Feel secure in knowing that this is a two-way relationship. Hear them out now, and give your own constructive criticism another time.
  4. Sit with it. Changing your mind is hard, and sometimes effective feedback needs a day or two to sink in. If you’re still confused or unconvinced several days later, come back and talk it out.
  5. Follow up. Whether it be in in the next Sync-Up, next week, etc., make sure you follow up on the feedback you received.

What if your manager won’t listen to feedback?

If you find yourself at an impasse:

  • Re-check your motives. Are you genuinely trying to help them grow or improve?
  • Reassess the need. Is your manager’s behavior creating a toxic work environment?
  • Review your documentation. Is it possible that there’s miscommunication?

If there’s still a problem, consider speaking with your boss’ manager or Human Resources. If they can’t help mediate a solution and you feel your situation has become unsustainable, it may be time to take your talents elsewhere! The workplace is changing, and you deserve a great one.

Give more feedback with WorkTango

We hope this article helped set you up for success to give your boss feedback. And if you’d like to learn more, we should talk.