26 September 2023

Turning the tables: How to give constructive feedback to your boss

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Rachel Parnes* says giving feedback to a boss is always daunting, but can improve the professional relationship – if done well.

Although feedback can be stressful, we’re all used to our managers providing us with constructive criticism, both positive and negative.

But what happens when the tables are turned—when you disagree with something your manager said, or how they’re handling a situation?

It can be tricky to open up that conversation and give feedback up the chain, even in a company culture of transparency and growth.

“Most of us don’t want to tell someone something that we think they don’t want to hear, especially if that someone has more of a senior title,” says Amy Bateman in How to Give Negative Feedback to Senior Colleagues.

But if you do it well, she says, your professional relationships will be improved, not damaged.

That’s because the best bosses want to hear your feedback.

In most organizations, they will welcome it and understand it’s coming from a good place.

The next time you’re in a position to give feedback to a boss or senior colleague, use these tips from the course to communicate in a way that makes sure you are heard.

Give feedback quickly (but not too quickly!)

When it comes to giving feedback, timing is critical.

You don’t want to blurt it out on the spot, but you also don’t want to wait too long before sharing your point of view.

Bateman advises to give feedback within 48 hours of the event.

“The longer you leave the feedback, the more chance there is of [you] and them having a different memory of what happened,” she says.

By giving feedback at a time when everyone involved in the conversation can remember the event clearly, the feedback will be more relevant and easier to digest.

At the same time, don’t rush your feedback.

As Bateman says, “it’s best to take a couple of hours to reflect when you’re out of the situation, maybe write some things down in a journal and read it back yourself without the emotion.”

That gives you a chance to consider whether you still want to provide the feedback.

You may not, says Bateman.

But if you write it down, you can refer back to it in case the situation happens again and you end up needing to address it.

Make sure the feedback can benefit the other person

Is your boss open to receiving feedback? Do they have the type of personality that’s receptive to input? Is it something tangible they can actually put into practice and change?

The good news is that most people actually do welcome feedback.

“Even if it can be a bit painful at times, most of us want to be better, we want to know what other people think of us, we want to know what’s upsetting or annoying someone,” says Bateman.

For example, maybe your manager rushes through meetings, but you process things more slowly; by the time you’re ready to provide input, she’s moved on.

If you were to share feedback that you want to contribute but need more time to do so, it gives her a very specific behaviour change that will benefit you, and the team.

The key here is tone and intent.

To set yourself up for success, says Bateman, the feedback “has to come from a really kind place, it has to be respectful, and ultimately, it has to benefit that person.”

Give feedback 1:1—not in a group

It’s never a good idea to give feedback to a senior colleague in front of team members, such as in a team meeting says Bateman.

It can embarrass them, or make them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable—all of which creates friction that gets in the way of them actually hearing what you have to say.

Instead, provide feedback one-on-one.

And whenever possible, give the feedback face-to-face, either in person or through a video call.

“Make sure you’ve got a confidential environment where nobody can overhear you…where you can both be really comfortable,” says Bateman.

If they’re not receptive, begin framing your feedback by asking a question.

What happens when you’re dealing with a boss who’s defensive or dismissive? Someone who simply doesn’t want to, or is unable to, hear your feedback?

Bateman has a solution: ask a question.

Here are some examples:

Excuse me, Mark, can I ask for your advice on something? There’s something that’s bothering me that I want to communicate with you.

“How would you best want me to do that?”

“I’d like your advice.

“I have a bit of feedback, but I’m not sure how best to share it with you.

“How would you want me to deliver it?”

By asking questions, you put the other person in the driver’s seat, which helps them to feel less vulnerable and more in control of the situation.

Then, as Bateman explains, it’s ultimately their job to facilitate an environment where you can share that feedback.

*Rachel Parnes, Senior Marketing Manager at LinkedIn.

This article first appeared at linkedin.com.

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