Here Is How to Give Your Boss Feedback Without Being Afraid of Backlash

It can make anyone, no matter how senior or experienced, nervous when they have to give feedback to someone higher up on the chain, someone who has power over them. No wonder! Start with the stresses of giving anyone feedback—the possibilities of being misunderstood, hurting the person’s feelings, or experiencing pushback or acting out—but those stresses and risks multiply when you’re doing this with someone who has direct control or input regarding your continuing career success.

So it’s understandable that many of us shy away from this kind of situation, deciding that maybe whatever we think warrants feedback isn’t so bad after all, or at least doesn’t need to be dealt with today. After all, if even heart-to-heart talks with loved ones can surprise you, imagine how shocking having one with your boss could be! 

Although giving feedback to your boss is never easy or completely danger-free, these seven steps will help you handle it as smoothly as possible.

Choose your topics carefully. List all the specifics you want to convey; then draft short “when/then” statements for each item. For example: “When you raise your voice during meetings, some people withdraw.” Or: “When you announce the deadline for a project the week it’s due, team members get overwhelmed because they’re starting out behind on top of everything else they need to do.” Which points do you feel you’re most committed to, and confident that you can express? Start with those. There are usually more topics available than it makes sense to include, so focus on one, or, at most, two you believe you can get real traction on. You’re aiming for a dynamic of ongoing feedback from you and continuing acceptance from your boss. Eventually, you’ll have established a habitual process that lets you add more complicated, harder-to-explain, or ambiguous topics to the conversation.

Get consent to deliver the feedback. No matter how many times a boss says, “My door is open,” that doesn’t mean they’re actually emotionally prepared to accept anything that sounds like a critique, so check explicitly. And keep away from the word “feedback” itself, which makes almost everyone feel a little defensive. Try something like, “I’d like to tell you about something I observed at yesterday’s team meeting. Would that be okay?”

Avoid personal judgments and guilt. If you make your boss feel worse than necessary, they may become immobilized, as we all can be after critiques, rather than feel inspired to change and move forward. Or worse, they might get mad and stay mad. Neither response will help you accomplish your purpose. Practice the mental exercise of softening your perception of your boss’s intention—for example, assume they only meant good and were unskillful or mistaken—without softening or underplaying the feedback itself. This way, you can offer them the benefit of the doubt as you speak: “You may not have realized…” or “I don’t know if you were aware that…”

Express the feedback clearly. Here are some approaches to consider for structuring the conversation in a straightforward, nonthreatening way: “You probably couldn’t tell how this came across. When you said X, people thought you were saying Y.” Notice that it would be natural to connect those last two sentences with “but.” Try not to do that, though, so that each thought can stand on its own. Or offer an alternative: “You’ve said that you want such-and-such a result, and you’re frustrated that you’re not getting it. Could I suggest that instead of doing things like [A, B, C], you try [D, E, F]?”

Use verbal cues to structure the interaction. Consider having a conversation in advance of the feedback discussion so you can test the waters and establish norms. What you’re looking for is an agreement—tacit or explicit—about how your boss would like you to proceed, a sign that they understand that what you really want to say is, “Boss! This is important! Pay attention!” You could ask overtly if there’s a structure they prefer, like raising your concerns at the beginning or end of a discussion. You can use language like, “May I just tell you something about that before we move on to the next topic?” Or even try something as plain as: “I have something to tell you.” Similarly, after giving the feedback, ask if you can use an agreed-upon cue in case the unhelpful behavior occurs again. You can ask, “If I notice this happening again, how do you want me to handle it at the time?”

Focus on the benefits for your boss and the team. In a way, delivering feedback is an odd version of making a business case. In each instance, you’re trying to persuade your boss that even if it seems difficult or unnecessary to them, if they do things differently ,they’ll get a better result and be satisfied in the end. So be sure to explain what the payoff will be for the change. “When you actually listen to the team’s answers instead of looking like you want to escape, they’ll be able to give you more and better information.” Or: “If you consistently express your concern and follow up with them individually, they’ll be reassured that you care about their being here and will be more willing to return to the office.”

Know your risks. It can be uncomfortable for anyone, no matter how self-aware or self-regulating, to be corrected or criticized, so the possibility of backlash always exists. Prepare your own business case for yourself. Why is it worth it to tell your boss what you think and how you’d like to see them change? Maybe your boss will begin to speak up on behalf of the things you care about. Perhaps you’re confident that the team will perform better if you advocate for them. Or you might just feel better if you try to be helpful and tell the truth about something you feel is important. These are all worthy reasons. Once you decide to speak up, you’re demonstrating that you believe the risks are worth it.

Onward and upward —

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