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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Steps to Giving Your Boss Tough Feedback (Because Sometimes it Needs to Happen)

Let’s face it: In life, there’s feedback, and then there’s feedback.

Some feedback is pretty easy to give with a smile, some honesty, and good intentions. For example:

To a colleague; “Hey I totally loved that presentation/those shoes/your cat dressed as Katy Perry’s Left Shark on Instagram. You rock!”

To a team member: “I love that you put so much effort into last week’s event. Thank you! Here are just a few ideas of how you can make things even better next time…”

To your mom: “I love you, Mom, truly, but please stop buying me underwear. I’m 29!”

But there’s the other type of feedback, the kind that no one ever wants to give: feedback to the dude who pays your salary.

I get it. I’ve had managers who were self-serving, abrupt, sexist, patronising, shirking suck-ups. (His name was Scott. If you’re reading this, Scott, take this as your feedback.) And I was too inexperienced back then to know how to give him feedback that might have not only eased our sticky relationship, but made him a much nicer manager in the future.

That’s just it, though: Giving feedback to a higher-up is tough. But, whether your boss is acting inappropriately in meetings, has made a total blunder, or is just doing something that makes your working life totally miserable, giving feedback that’s courteous, respectful, and direct can go a long way in making your relationship better.

When you’ve got a tough conversation to have with your boss, you might find it easier to have a format to hang it on. Otherwise there’s the possibility of your “feedback” turning into a sweaty, rambling rant, ending only in tears and you being escorted from the building. Nope, if you’re going to man up enough to do this, you’re going to do it right. And here’s how.

Step 1: Context

Launching into a personal attack is rarely effective when you’re talking to anyone—let alone your boss—so you need to set the scene. At this point, your boss might have no clue that he has done anything wrong (or he could be the type who does know but doesn’t care, in which case you need a stronger intervention than this).

Start by giving him time to warm up to the idea that an unpleasant conversation is about to drop right into his lap.

Scott [yes, he’s our fall guy], since last week’s event, something you did/said/didn’t do has been playing on my mind. And rather than keep worrying about it, I thought it better to get it out in the open. I don’t like confrontation, so this might be tough for me, but if we’re going to move forward I’d rather tackle it now.

Step 2: The Emotional Bit

Yes, it’s what we’re taught in all of those I Love Him, Why Can’t He Love My Brand of Crazy? relationship books. Basically, you’ve got to take the heat out of the moment. Once you’ve dropped the fact that you have a problem in your manager’s lap, he might feel defensive or under pressure, but you can move the conversation forward by shifting the focus from to you. Think: “When you did X, it made me feel Y.” Or:

Scott, at last week’s event, when you shouted at me in front of my colleagues and our customers, it made me feel embarrassed/belittled/humiliated/like kicking you in the shins.

The good bit? Nobody can dispute how you felt. They might differ on how events unfolded, but they can’t argue with how it made you feel. Winner.

Step 3: Focus on the Future

So, now you’ve explained the way in which your boss acted like a total doofus, and you’ve calmly discussed exactly how that made you feel. (All of which was horrible and tense and made your legs go shaky like the time you called your teacher “Mom” in class.) So, now what?

Now it’s time to show your boss that you’re excited to move past this incident and to find practical steps you can take to improve the climate of your relationship—or at least downgrade it from a hurricane to just a bit gusty. Focus your language here less on The Incident and more on how you can both do things differently in the future.

Scott, I realize that I made a mistake, but I would have responded better to private feedback rather than being confronted in the meeting. How can we approach this situation differently in the future? Would it be helpful to touch base before meetings to make sure we’re on the same page, for me to send you reports before presenting to the team, or to have a weekly one-on-one?

By having your boss work with you to improve how you work together, you’re suddenly a team, working together on a project that’s of real importance. The added bonus is that you’re not left struggling with this issue alone. A problem shared is a problem halved, even if it is with a complete asshole with unfortunate people skills. You’re not left wrestling with how to solve it—you’ve made it as much your boss’ problem as it is yours.

I won’t say that giving feedback is easy, especially when you’re wrestling with your own pompous, unbearable version of Scott. But in many cases, those few moments of awkwardness can lead to years of a better working relationship.

And if not? Well, then do what I did all those years ago. Play along nicely until he, inevitably, gets fired on what was my best ever Tuesday morning in the office. Good luck!

Photo of woman listening courtesy of Shutterstock.