Giving feedback to your manager: tips and examples

Want to give your boss constructive criticism, but worried they’ll take it the wrong way? Here are some tips

WeWork Gateway 6 in Salt Lake City. Photograph by WeWork

We’re all familiar with feedback flowing downhill, but as traditional corporate structures become flatter and less hierarchical, the relationship between managers and employees is becoming more reciprocal and open to honest sharing. The idea of dishing out “upward feedback” is increasingly encouraged as a way to foster a more transparent workplace and effective management team.

But telling your boss how you truly feel can be a real risk. No matter how flat the organization appears to be, there’s a clear power dynamic between an employer and the people who work for them. There are times when an employee might want or need to tell a boss about how their performance appears or affects them, but delivering that message appropriately requires careful consideration and a whole lot of tact.

First, do you even need to give feedback? If your manager’s performance doesn’t impact your ability to perform your own duties, then the shrewd thing to do might be to keep your thoughts to yourself. Think about who stands to benefit most from the interaction as well as who has the most to lose, and then factor that into how candidly you respond.

However, if an adjustment to your manager’s way of doing things would help you complete work more effectively, then sharing your feedback in a thoughtful and diplomatic way could be your best next step. It might sound daunting, but here’s some advice to help you do just that, whether you want to develop your own skills or expand your role within the business.

The meaning of giving feedback to your manager

Feedback will look differently depending on the type of work you do. In small teams and creative settings, the relationship between a manager and an employee might be more friendly and relaxed, so feedback can be casually tossed around without much friction or stress.

However, in a more corporate setting or a larger business, giving feedback to a manager could be more formal. For example, it might form part of an employee’s annual appraisal or performance review. In this situation, the scope of the upward feedback should be limited to the employee’s relationship with the manager and the company as a whole, with the ultimate goal of improving the employee’s ability to work most effectively.

No matter the scenario, feedback should always lead to a constructive discussion between a manager and an employee—it shouldn’t, for example, be a directive or contain an ultimatum.

Why is it important to give feedback to your boss?

Having consistent and honest communication with your boss means you will be better equipped to deal with problems as they arise. Perhaps your workload has been growing for a while and you need more support. You might feel that your professional development has stalled, or that your department’s workflow is overly complicated, or that you’re being micromanaged. 

These are all important concerns to bring to a manager’s attention. If you’ve created a space in which you feel confident in giving practical, constructive feedback without fear of being misconstrued or punished, you’ll both find it easier to reach solutions that work for everyone.

How can you give constructive feedback to your manager?

  • Make sure your constructive feedback is actually constructive

The clue is in the name—constructive feedback should be motivating and help to build toward, or construct, a positive outcome or change in behavior. That doesn’t mean you can’t give negative feedback, but all feedback is generally better received when you focus on solutions rather than complaints.

  • Use questions to get a sense of the situation

Did you know that questions are an effective way of delivering feedback to your boss in a cooperative and non-confrontational way? Keep in mind that this is a well-known negotiation tactic, so be careful not to come across as patronizing or ambiguous. 

  • Be sincere and express your true feelings

Be completely honest, while also remaining professional. Don’t avoid your feelings or water down your feedback; otherwise, the importance you feel about the matter might not be fully expressed to your manager. In turn, they might fail to act entirely, or even fail to adjust to the extent you need them to. Avoid diluting your feedback with wavering phrases like, “It’s not a big deal, but…”

  • Get straight to the point

Cutting straight to the chase leaves no room for misinterpretation, avoids emotion, and makes you appear decisive and confident in your ideas. Circling around the issue for too long or building up to your point with too much small talk can make things awkward and places a needlessly uncomfortable focus on the impending feedback.

  • Give some positive feedback, too

The technique of delivering hard-to-swallow feedback in a “compliment sandwich” is a classic, but it works as long as you can pull it off naturally. You don’t have to bookend your criticism with praise, but by leading with some positive feedback—while avoiding ambiguity—you can create a more constructive atmosphere in the room.

When it’s appropriate to share feedback with your boss

  • In a performance review

Your performance review is the most appropriate forum in which to speak openly with your boss about how you feel, but only if you’re invited to do so as part of the process. If you offer unsolicited feedback during a formal assessment of your own performance, you’ll come across as defensive and possibly combative.

  • Face-to-face and in private

Try to normalize having one-on-one time with your boss by scheduling regular private meetings, even when there’s nothing major to report. By creating this space for open dialogue, a face-to-face meeting in which you share your vital feedback feels more routine.

  • Before or after meetings

Before or after a meeting is a great time to share your thoughts, so long as your feedback isn’t specifically related to the agenda at hand. For example, by springing your feelings on your boss minutes before they’re about to host a presentation to the rest of the team, you risk derailing them.

When it’s not appropriate to share feedback with your boss

  • With a client

When clients are around, there needs to be a united front, or at least the appearance of one. You might disagree on the basics, but remember that you’re working toward the same goal. Therefore, contradicting your boss’s approach during a client meeting is a huge negative, as it decimates trust and potentially embarrasses your boss in front of a customer.

  • During a team meeting

Client meetings aside, team chats are the absolute worst possible moment to start dropping your hard facts. When you share feedback in front of colleagues, you put your unsuspecting boss on the defensive, undermine their authority, and ultimately weaken your own position.

  • Outside work

Away from the workplace, the boundary between personal and professional life can become blurred. Don’t share your work-related feedback outside of the office, where there’s a greater chance of your professional opinions being conflated with personal feelings.

More tips on how to give feedback to your manager

  1. Focus on the task or specific behaviors rather than the individual. Feedback that directs attention to the task leads to better results.
  2. Focus on the future, not the past. You can’t change past behavior.
  3. Use specific, recent examples to provide suggestions for improvement.
  4. Be sure to mention something your manager did or does well.
  5. This should go without saying, but use polite, professional language.
  6. Focus on reaching solutions, not on outlining problems.
  7. Don’t wait too long before making your feelings known.
  8. Be open to receiving feedback, but only after you’ve been heard.

Examples of constructive feedback for managers

Let’s take a look at a few examples of constructive feedback deployed in various hypothetical scenarios. In each, we’ll draw on some of the advice and tips mentioned in the article above.

Around miscommunication

“I was surprised we had such different expectations about how the last project would pan out. So before I get going with this next task, I wanted to quickly check in with you to make sure I have all the information I need and that we’re on the same page. A little extra guidance now will help me take this project to the finish line.”

This is a clear indication to a manager that you need more detailed help with a task, or that a job has been badly communicated to you in the past. But it also clarifies that once up to speed, you can happily continue the work alone. The language used is careful not to assign blame for any confusion, but instead focuses on the path forward, and prompts the recipient to rethink the level of guidance being offered.

Around workloads

“Right now I’m working on several different projects at once, all of them operating on tight schedules, which leaves me with very little time to dedicate to new work. I’ve reached the limit of the number of tasks I can currently take on—can you help me prioritize my workload in a way that helps us meet this new deadline?”

This firmly makes the point that you’ve got too much work on your plate, but takes the important first step toward finding a solution to the problem. Coming to your manager with a prompt to consider different options, rather than with a blunt complaint, gives them an opportunity to adjust things before your workload becomes untenable.

Around progression

“You’ve given me great opportunities and mentoring here so far, but I think there’s even more I could be doing for the business right now. What changes can I make to become a more valued member of the team?”

A sense of stagnation in a role can be difficult to distill into practical feedback for a manager, but by framing your concern as a request for support in moving your career forward, you make it abundantly clear that there’s more your manager can do to make you feel valued at the company.

These examples are broad, but each one is a jumping-off point for a constructive discussion that addresses your concerns and ensures that your perspective is being appreciated. Come to the table with solutions, be honest about your position, and you can be certain that your feedback will be taken the right way.

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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