Summary: The ability to give upward (and downward) feedback enables you to assert yourself in the workplace. But make sure the recipient is ready to receive the feedback, especially if this person is your boss.
I don’t have much in common with Marcel Proust except maybe one thing. I try very hard to bite my tongue and not give an opinion. Apparently, Proust drove people mad as he would never express an opinion.
It wasn’t that he was evasive, maybe he simply wanted to side-step that awkward moment where, at some point in the future, people use your own words against you. So, if possible, I try to avoid giving advice. It tends to backfire.
If you don’t ask for my opinion, I don’t give it. Usually. It’s not because I don’t want to help you. I do.
It’s because: people only value what they pay for.
And the ‘ask’ in asking for an opinion is a type of payment… and trust is the currency. This brings us to the tricky subject to giving feedback to your boss. When do you give an opinion? How do you phrase things to avoid offense? What happens if you get it wrong? Here are a few ideas.
Before You Decide to Give Your Boss Feedback
Let’s say you’ve worked with your boss for seven years.
You know all about her business, her three children, her divorce, her health, her private aspirations, and other things as well. You’re also very happy with your position (you can work at home twice a week) and you want to help, but…
- Where do you draw the line?
- How much can you share?
- Would feedback be seen as a criticism?
- Is she receptive to feedback?
- Would it damage or improve your relationship? And, most importantly,
- What’s your true motive?
Why Should You Give Feedback?
Let’s step back.
You’ve seen your manager in different business settings: at conferences, presentations, interviews, contract negotiations, and workshops.
You know her blind-spots.
You see things about her that, if she knew, you believe, would help her develop the business.
However, even though you know this, is it your place to give her this feedback?
You could also put your own job at risk by being too direct and hurting her feelings.
This type of feedback – from a subordinate to a senior — is called ‘upward feedback’.
What the Experts Say about Upward Feedback
John Baldoni, the author of Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up, believes that leadership is about perception—if they don’t know how they’re perceived by peers and employees, their performance will suffers. They are functioning with a limited set of information. Maybe you can close the gap.
James Detert, who write the Harvard Business Review article “Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak” adds, “Over reliance on the chain of command prevents leaders from hearing the unvarnished truth.”
The higher up one goes, the harder it is to get honest feedback.
Giving Your Boss Feedback
Let’s assume that we’re genuinely trying to help our boss and have no hidden agenda. Maybe the company is suffering and you feel obliged to highlight areas she may have overlooked. Here are some points to consider before jumping in:
Trust is built on our experience of dealing with others over time. We don’t trust people instantly (I hope!) as we’ve not had time to analyze their behavior, look at their values, and see what motivates them.
Trust grows by degrees.
Giving ‘upward feedback’ is dependent on the trust between you and your boss. Once trust has been established, you can consider how to share your feedback.
Gauge the Temperature
Maybe temperature isn’t the right word but how receptive do you feel (not think) your boss will be to feedback?
On a scale of 1-100? If they’re lower than 80, have a re-think. Ask others whose opinion you trust if you should speak up. Maybe it’s not so wise after all. If your friends feel that your boss is unreceptive, or will react negatively, it’s better not to say anything.
Avoid Giving Unsolicited Feedback
Bob Bly warns that, ‘If other people really wanted your advice, they would ask for it.’
This is true, up to a point.
Sometime we’re afraid to ask for advice, for example, if it threatens our status. So, even if you get on great with your boss, giving unsolicited feedback requires tack and skill.
Don’t assume your feedback will be accepted the way you think it will.
Frame Your Perspective
One way to offer feedback is to focus on what you see and hear, for example from your colleagues, customers, analysts or others.
This protects you from giving subjective ‘opinions’, which may be an indirect way of looking for attention or running someone down.
For example, you can share with your boss how others see them. Maybe clients see them as too reserved and aloof. Front line staff feels the boss doesn’t care; they’ve not visited their offices in six months and rarely get mentioned in company bulletins.
This can help you boss if they have become disconnected from front line ranks.
Do’s and Don’ts When Giving Upward Feedback
- Be specific about where and how you can help. Remember some things are none of your business; despite what you think, you don’t understand the pressure your boss is under.
- Be sure your boss is receptive to feedback before giving it.
- Focus on how you can help her improve.
- Provide data-driven feedback. It’s seen as more objective.
- Share what you see and hear, for example, issues that are kept away from your boss.
- Show that you want to help your boss improve.
- Start out by giving positive feedback.
- Assume your boss DOESN’T want feedback. Look for your cue and see where you can offer some insight.
- Indulge in accusations, gossip and hearsay.
- Be nasty. Don’t give feedback that is designed to hurt, humiliate or damage others.
- Fight fire with fire. If your boss criticized you, don’t suddenly ‘share’ things to settle the score. There’ll only be one winner.
- Give feedback when you’re angry or feel slighted.
The last word is from Zig Ziglar’s Strategies for Success “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
Make sure your intentions are sincere, look for your cue, and then share the most important things first.
Over to you.
How do you see this? What have I missed? What happened the last time you gave your boss some feedback? Join us on Facebook.