You got this (but tread lightly).
Here’s a career conundrum that trips a lot of professionals up: having to give negative feedback to a boss or other work superior. You’ve likely received your share of feedback from higher-ups—both good and not-so-good, but hopefully all helpful. Maybe you’ve even gotten to the point in your career where you manage a team to whom you constantly offer a healthy amount of praise and criticism. And as uncomfortable as confrontation is for a lot of people, at least the two above scenarios seem to follow the natural order of things: a superior giving feedback to those working under them.
What happens, then, if you have to manage your manager? Your boss might openly ask you to pinpoint what they can improve—and leave you totally tongue-tied. Or, even harder to swallow, you might find yourself in a position where giving negative feedback becomes necessary, whether or not your manager requested it. It feels like a trap—damned if you do, damned if you don’t—but as long as you conduct yourself professionally, you’ll come out the other side (promise). And hey, being able to offer constructive criticism might even impress them and help you get promoted down the line.
Etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith etiquette consulting and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners ($10; amazon.com), shares the biggest mistakes to avoid when offering your two cents to a superior.
Mistake #1: Giving unsolicited feedback.
Hitting your boss with a harsh critique out of the blue is a bad plan. "Don’t assume your boss wants your feedback if it hasn’t been officially requested." Smith says. (And this isn't just an office politics, every-boss-has-an-ego sort of rule; unsolicited feedback is tough for anyone to receive.) If you still have something you need to say, begin by asking your boss if they’d like some feedback. Smith suggests broaching the topic with something like: "We’ve been working together for four months now and I’m noticing some trends. Would you be open to some ideas I've been brainstorming?" The worst they could say is "no," in which case, "that’s your answer,” Smith says, so you should leave it be (at least for now).
Unsolicited feedback is even less welcome when it targets their management style or personality, versus a certain business decision or strategy—because it's much more personal. If they open the floor for your opinions on their overall attitude, treatment of you (and other teammates), or their particular method of working, proceed with caution. Approach it with how something made you feel (using helpful "I" statements), cite specific examples, and come with suggestions for improvements (which we'll get to in a minute).
Mistake #2: Not timing it right.
Designate a specific time to talk face to face, just the two of you. "In most workplaces, providing feedback to your boss should be a formal meeting," Smith says. "[Make] sure your boss is interested in hearing feedback before scheduling a specific time to speak. When in doubt, it’s better to be more formal than not, but even in a casual workplace, don’t criticize the boss in front of others—and never in front of clients."
Mistake #3: Not asking questions.
One strategy Smith recommends is to “be a journalist.” Instead of firing accusations and stating opinions as facts, ask better questions. Think about what you might be missing or how you can improve on your end. "There could be something your boss is doing for a reason you just don’t yet understand."
For example, your boss might keep giving more significant assignments to your colleague, making it seem like you're underperforming, or making you feel personally slighted. But your manager might not realize you're reading the situation that way. They might be bypassing you for a good reason, like they're lightening your workload so you can take on something even more exciting soon, or because they didn't realize you were interested in taking on a project of that nature. It's your job to ask proactively, "Is there something I can be doing to earn X or Y responsibilities? I'd love to be more involved going forward," and not, "You always give other people better projects and don't seem to like me very much." See the difference?
Mistake #4: Coming without suggestions or solutions.
A good manager will appreciate a report who’s taken the time not only to observe pain points, but to brainstorm possible solutions. Come to this meeting as a problem-solver as opposed to just a problem-noticer. This shows your intentions go beyond simply airing grievances—you’re here to fix or improve something that's hindering your performance.
Does your boss send confusing, jumbled email assignments and expect you to decode them by reading between the lines? Try asking, "Would you consider sending what you need from me in bullet-note form, via email? I work best with a clear outline and want to make sure I hit all your asks correctly." And avoid saying, "Your email directions never make sense to me, which is why you're never satisfied with my work."
Mistake #5: Being accusatory.
Clarity, empathy and diplomacy will be your biggest assets in this situation. It’s important to get to the point clearly and quickly, but don’t roll in guns blazing. Watch your words and your body language: "If your boss has agreed to hear your feedback, choose your words carefully," Smith says. "Avoid literal or figurative finger pointing and keep your voice calm and even."
Steer clear of language that positions you as a constant victim. Don't say: "You're never available to meet with me, and always distracted if/when we do meet." Instead, try: "I benefit most from uninterrupted face-to-face meetings, even if it's for 15 minutes every two weeks. I know how busy you are, but would you be open to having more regularly scheduled one-one-ones? I'd be happy to set them up on the calendar."
Mistake #6: Not practicing beforehand.
To make sure your delivery is professional and appropriate while still getting the point across, take some notes and practice what you’re about to say. “You may want to do a test-run with someone in the office you trust,” Smith recommends. The more familiar you are with what you want to say, the more easily it'll flow when it's game time.