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3 tips to give bosses feedback without them knowing it

4 min read


I presented a webinar recently about making your relationship with your boss work for you, and I received a really good question: How do you give constructive feedback to a boss who has a hard time receiving it?

Don’t get psyched out.

I remember one the first times I really applied “managing up.” I was put in the tricky position of telling the boss how he just stuck his foot in his mouth. There was no avoiding it. It was going to be damaging if he didn’t remedy the situation.

I worked at the chemical plant at the time. One of the senior managers visited a production unit one and said something that was misinterpreted in the worst way. It got to me nearly before he got back to his office. I knew if I approached it directly, he would not hear me. If I just walked in and said, “Do you realize what you just did in Unit B?” he would spend a half hour defending himself. So I took a slightly different question, “I understand some stuff is going on in Unit B. Can you tell me about it?”

This guy was a talker. He wouldn’t have suspected any underlying motive to my question. My main objective was to drain him of all he had to say so he would eventually be ready to hear me. It still ended up taking a half hour, but at the end of that half hour he said, “Now what did you come in here for again?” I referred to what he had just told me and used one of my favorite sentence starters, “I wonder …” as in “I wonder how people reacted when you said ______.” Remember, he had just told me this story, so I wasn’t burning anybody back in Unit B.

I gave him room to talk. He reflected on what he said. I didn’t need to intervene much. He realized it didn’t go over very well. Even if he hadn’t realized it, I now had a platform to suggest how I might have taken what he said, or that he might want to check with the unit manager on the reaction.

Granted, I was in an HR role and in the position to give this manager some important feedback, but you, no matter what your role, can transfer nearly everything in this example to how you are going to offer feedback.

3 points to consider before diving in.

  1. Know your audience. Firstly, what are the stakes and is it worth the risk? If the answers are yes, you want to present any idea or concern you have in a way they can hear you. Are they a talker or always in a hurry? What kind of relationship do you have? Is there any trusted adviser you can consult about an approach?
  1. Give them a way to see it themselves. Let them talk and ask questions about what they are saying. “What makes you say that?” is an excellent question to fall back on. When we as humans hear ourselves speak our thoughts out loud we process it differently than just thinking without speaking.
  1. Make it their idea. When you allow them to reflect on their own behavior they can take action based on their own decision. The “I wonder …” sentence starter gets them thinking. If you see them look up toward the ceiling, you’ve got them. You can almost see the light bulb appear above his or her head.

Giving your boss constructive feedback is no small feat, but if you can pull it off, you’ve done your boss, yourself and the organization a big favor.

As a coach, trainer and consultant, @MarySchaefer hears all kinds of stories from employees and managers alike (managers have bosses, too) about behavior from the boss that ranges from annoying to perplexing. In response, she was motivated to develop the guide to “9 Essential Tips to Manage Your Crazy Boss.” As one Fortune 100 employee put it: “My manager is not even crazy and I find these free tips useful.” Get the guide.