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How to give feedback to your boss without getting into trouble

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Giving good feedback can be a great experience, but highlighting things someone needs to change or work on is a challenge. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for Laureus
Giving good feedback can be a great experience, but highlighting things someone needs to change or work on is a challenge. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for Laureus

Constructive feedback allows people to recognise their skills and abilities and identify areas that need improvement, so they can develop and progress in their career. However, it’s easy for people to feel personally attacked, or like they have failed.

When giving an assessment of someone’s performance, we’re often worried about the other person’s reaction and whether they’ll get upset, defensive or angry. On top of that, it can be hard to know exactly what to say.

Giving good feedback can be a great experience, but highlighting things someone needs to change or work on is a challenge. And things get even trickier when the person you are giving feedback to is your boss.

‘Upward feedback’ is a good way for employees to provide developmental feedback to their superiors. If offered correctly and thoughtfully, your insights can help your manager lead you and other colleagues more effectively as well as improve your working relationship. But if it goes badly, your job may end up on the line.

“It can be very difficult to give feedback to your boss,” says career coach Valerie O'Hanlon, of Clarence Consulting. “They are your superior, the person who's supposed to be right, who should be more expert and knowledgeable than you.

“However, the role of a boss is to encourage, inspire and motivate their team and they do that through listening to what their team has to say – and empowering them to take responsibility and taking initiative. Like most things, we always think it's more difficult than it actually is. The level of difficulty will depend on what type of working relationship you have with your boss.”

READ MORE: Why 'managing up' can be the key to career success

If you have a good relationship with your manager and feel like you can speak freely without judgement, giving polite feedback may not be such a big deal. If you don’t get along so well or if they are particularly sensitive or touchy, trying to give constructive criticism can be a scary experience.

It can be tempting to focus on the positive aspects of the feedback and ignore corrective issues, but this doesn’t always pay off. Without guidance, your manager’s bad habits – like being disorganised, losing important documents or never replying to emails - will simply continue, which can make your job more difficult.

Being honest can earn respect from your superior too, if the feedback is delivered in a polite, clear and helpful way. If you know that your boss is unreceptive to feedback, is likely to react negatively, or if you have a rocky relationship, it’s better to stay quiet. “I think there's two extremes – being a "yes" person and always being the one that finds fault,” O’Hanlon says. “I think there's a happy medium. Choose your battles wisely.”

If you do decide to give constructive feedback to your manager, there are several ways to make it a less daunting experience.

“Firstly, in any employee/manager relationship, determine your communication style,” O’Hanlon advises. “How open are they to feedback? Do they ask for feedback regularly? Is there an opportunity to give feedback as part of a 360 Feedback process?

“Definitely choose your timing wisely. In front of the team or your boss's superior may not be the best time to deliver negative feedback, however, it may be the best time to deliver positive feedback.”

READ MORE: Why the pandemic has changed what we want in a leader

Even if you have a good relationship with your boss, giving unsolicited feedback can be risky. And remember, the feedback you are giving is from your viewpoint alone and not necessarily other people’s. If your manager is a little disorderly, it may be because they’re being pulled in a hundred different directions - and you may not realise the demands placed on them.

Finally, O’Hanlon suggests asking yourself if the feedback is true, necessary and kind. “If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then find an appropriate time and place to discuss your concerns with your boss and don't forget to give positive feedback when warranted too. Bosses appreciate that too.”

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