Let’s be honest: Six tactful ways to give your manager feedback

Give the most effective criticism to a superior with these recommendations from a psychology and business expert

If you’re not in a management position at work, you’re likely the one on the receiving end of a performance review. But what do you do when your manager turns the tables and asks you how they’re doing? More so, what do you do when you actually have feedback to give?

Some might advise that you just smile and nod. Don’t say a word, because if you misstep, you’ll find yourself scouring job postings and emailing résumés.

This happened to me at my last job, and though I was scared, I just wasn’t convinced that being honest would cost me my job. Yet I also wasn’t convinced that I was safe.

I asked around and searched a little online. There are some helpful tips out there, but I felt like they could apply to anybody, anywhere in any relationship. So I asked an expert.

Kristina Bauer is a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology. She teaches performance appraisal, and studies training and development.

Being put in this position meant I needed to consider two things before I decided to give feedback: my office’s culture and who I’d be delivering the feedback to.

Company culture

First, Bauer says, consider your organizational culture.

“Organizational culture refers to the values and attitudes held by the organization and the people within the organization,” she says. “Some organizations are very hierarchically structured and discourage lower level employees from providing input up the chain.”

If upward criticism is discouraged overall, it may not be a good idea to offer your thoughts to your boss, even if he or she asks for it. But some offices don’t have rules like that. “Other organizations don’t value a strict hierarchy, open communication is common, and upward influence is valued.”

In my case, my office was conducting a company-wide survey to determine potential performance gaps and areas of improvement. So feedback was happening, whether I chose it or not.

Next, think about office politics. Do you work in an extremely competitive environment? Is it every man for himself? Do supervisors strategically choose to provide resources? Luckily, if politics were involved, I wasn’t a part of it. But I felt some element of competition in the air, which made me wary.

Who am I talking to?

The bigger factor in making this decision is your relationship with your supervisor, says Bauer. There’s science to back this up: the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory.

“Basically, the theory says that supervisors form different relationships with each of their subordinates,” Bauer says. “When a supervisor and subordinate have high LMX or a high-quality relationship, the supervisor provides resources to, encourages development of, and values feedback from the subordinate.”

In my case, I was indeed talking to a superior, but she was interviewing me on behalf of management as a whole, which included my direct boss, who cared about what I had to say. So there I was: my organization’s culture and politics encourage (at least, did not actively discourage) giving feedback, my boss and I had a decent LMX, but I still wasn’t sure if I was safe.

If you find yourself in that position, Bauer also recommends asking yourself the following:

  1. Does my supervisor seem like the kind of person who would retaliate if they don’t like the information I provide?
  2. Can my supervisor actually fire me?
  3. Do you feel like you have quality feedback to give, and how much do you want to share it?

The environment seemed just right for offering a few helpful points, and I really did want to be helpful. So I picked and chose when I spoke up and when I didn’t. And when I did speak up, I chose my words carefully and made sure I had evidence to back up my feedback.

If you don’t want to say anything, Bauer says there’s still a way out: “The best thing to do is provide some feedback on things the supervisor did well,” she says. “This way, the supervisor is happy, and you haven’t done anything that would be considered offensive.”

How to give feedback

Bauer recommends a few tips for giving truly constructive criticism:

  1. Give a mix of positive and negative feedback.
  2. Focus on the task or specific behaviors rather than the individual. Feedback that directs attention to the task leads to higher performance.
  3. Focus on the future, not the past. You can’t change past behavior.
  4. Use specific, recent examples to provide suggestions for improvement.
  5. Be sure to say something the supervisor did well.
  6. This probably goes without saying, but use polite, professional language.
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