Giving your boss feedback is an intimidating prospect, especially if what you want to share isn’t exactly glowing praise. After all, no one worries about sounding like a jerk when they’re telling their boss how great they are!
When you give feedback to a manager or someone else above you, it’s known as “upward feedback.” While this tends to be a sensitive conversation, it can be very powerful and extremely valuable when done right.
Providing upward feedback should be approached carefully and thoughtfully. Feedback should always be constructive. This is especially important when talking to your boss because it could have a negative impact on your relationship if what you share is perceived in the wrong way.
The fact that you’re reading this article shows that you care about your professional relationship and that you want to approach this situation in the best way possible. Let’s dive into why giving your manager feedback is important, and how to go about it the right way.
Why Upward Feedback is Valuable (Even If It’s Scary)
It’s totally normal to be nervous about giving upward feedback. No matter how equitable your relationship is, your boss is still in a management position! Speaking up is scary, and it can be tempting to lay low even if you have something important to share.
But don’t let that fear hold you back! As long as you’re mindful of the context, tone, and situation, providing feedback is actually one of the most helpful things you can do for your boss or manager.
Feedback can not only benefit your relationship with your boss, it can also improve their entire leadership style. That’s because the further someone advances up the chain of command, the harder it is for them to get honest feedback. Your managers will value your input much more than a teammate or coworker might because it’s something they don’t have access to very often.
If they want to be an effective leader, they’ll encourage feedback from their team and take it seriously. Think about it—how can anyone keep growing and improving at work if they aren’t sure of what they need to improve on?
Don’t be a yes-person! Refraining from voicing your critique may seem like the easier option, but there is a way to deliver constructive and helpful feedback that benefits both parties.
Getting Ready To Give Your Boss Feedback
It takes a strong foundation of trust to deliver upward feedback productively. Ideally, you should establish that trust early in your relationship by creating an environment where open and honest communication is encouraged. Having high levels of trust means that you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings without the fear that doing so will damage your relationship, or even put your job at risk!
If your boss hasn’t made it clear that they welcome feedback, ask if they are open to it before you share. Even if you know your boss is receptive, be sure to double check just to make sure.
Your next reminder is: Don’t spring feedback on them when they don’t have time to process it!
An effective strategy could be to set up a recurring time and place for feedback, such as a biweekly, one-on-one meeting. This could take place in person or, if you’re on a remote team, over video chat. By interacting face-to-face at a predetermined time, your boss can get into the right headspace to receive your feedback. You also minimize the potential for miscommunication by making sure the conversation is given the attention it deserves.
Make Your Feedback Constructive
We all know there’s a big difference between constructive feedback and unhelpful criticism—and that difference has never been more important than when you’re talking to your boss!
Here are some steps to making sure your feedback is diplomatic, thoughtful, and actionable. Remember, you want your feedback to improve the situation, not send you over to LinkedIn to hunt for a new job!
Keep It Objective
Good feedback should take the form of honest and data-driven observations. Be specific and objective—make an effort to describe behaviors and situations neutrally, without making value judgements. In particular, don’t make any personal statements about your boss’s character!
Instead, focus on your perspective. You may not have all the information, and you might be missing important context for why your boss acted the way they did. If you share your experience neutrally, you’re leaving room for your boss to fill in the gaps and explain any misunderstandings from their point of view.
Choose Your Words Carefully
How you give your feedback matters just as much as what you actually say. Tone and word choice are always important, but let’s be honest—if there’s ever a time to tread carefully, it’s when you’re giving feedback to the person who signs your paychecks!
First of all, use polite and professional language. While this may sound obvious, giving feedback can be emotional, especially if it’s in response to an upsetting or frustrating situation. But you can speak your truth while remaining cool, calm, and collected.
In fact, it’s a good idea to write down what you want to say before speaking with your boss. Obviously, don’t read to your boss from a script—that could seem a little strange. But getting your thoughts down on paper can go a long way towards helping you articulate feedback the right way.
Before you speak with your boss, read back what you’ve written. Look out for any loaded language—you want to avoid judgement words and stick to neutral, descriptive phrasing. Ask yourself: How would you feel receiving this feedback in their shoes? Would you feel attacked or judged?
Add Some Positivity
There’s no need for an upward feedback session to be all doom and gloom. Remember, you’re trying to help your boss—if they’re a good manager, they’ll appreciate that! Here are a few ways to keep the conversation light, warm, and friendly:
- Instead of focusing only on negative feedback, include some affirmations on things your boss did well. Unless you’re working for Lord Voldemort (in which case diplomatic phrasing is the least of your worries), you can always find something positive to comment on. If you can’t, why are you working there at all?
- Make sure to hold space for your boss to respond with their own feedback for you! This will steer the conversation in a more reciprocal direction. You want the feedback session to feel like a collaboration between you and your manager, rather than criticism or a lecture.
- Finally, end the conversation on a positive note by sincerely thanking your boss for listening to you. If they’re willing to absorb and grow from criticism, that’s indicative of a strong, trusting relationship. Make sure your boss knows how much that means to you!
What Does Great Feedback Sound Like?
Advice on feedback is great, but how do you put it into practice? Here are a few examples of how you could respond to the same situation, in both a constructive and non-constructive way.
Constructive: “I noticed that in our last meeting, Ellen seemed upset by how you reacted to her suggestions. I’ve found some effective ways to communicate with her if you’d like to hear them!”
Not Constructive: “You acted like a bully to Ellen in our most recent meeting.”
Constructive: “Lately, I have had trouble understanding exactly what you need from me. I know it’s not your intention to confuse me, and I want to make sure I can deliver on your expectations. Could we talk about some ways you and I can communicate more effectively so I can understand what needs to get done?”
Not Constructive: “I’m upset because I’m lost on this project and no one is telling me what to do. I need you to be less vague and support me.”
Constructive: “With the current size of my workload, I am concerned about my ability to maintain the quality of my work. Could we check in about my capacity before I am assigned new tasks?”
Not Constructive: “You’re overloading me with work. I feel exploited and like no one cares about me.”
Constructive: “Recently, I’ve been unsure about whether I have permission to talk to X stakeholders and make decisions about the project. Because you weren’t present at our recent meeting with them like I expected, I wasn’t sure how to act, or lead the meeting effectively without overstepping. It would be great if we could arrive at a clearer understanding of what my responsibilities and authority are.”
Not Constructive: “You left me in the lurch and I had to lead that meeting by myself. You didn’t bother to let me know how to deal with X stakeholders or what they needed from us. I feel like you’re checked out and not leading our team.”
Constructive: “I want to check in with you on your satisfaction with my work. I got the impression that you were frustrated yesterday. Could we set a time to communicate more clearly about anything that needs to improve?”
Not Constructive: “You were mean to me yesterday. I feel like you don’t respect me.”
Thoughtful Feedback Helps Everyone
Great feedback is specific, constructive, and intended to help the person receiving it grow. That’s important to give good feedback in any situation, but even more so when you’re talking to your boss.
If you’re nervous about giving upward feedback, just remember that your intentions are in the right place. If you’ve followed the steps shared here, it will be clear to your boss that you’ve thought things through carefully, and that your goal is supported with positive intentions to improve your relationship.
You can even try out these tips the next time you need to give feedback to a teammate or a new employee. Everyone deserves actionable feedback that helps them grow, even if they aren’t in a position of power. If we spoke to everyone the way we speak to our boss, imagine how happy and productive our workplaces could be.