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December 1, 2016
Tips for Giving Your Manager Open and Honest Feedback

Tis the season for many people to participate in annual performance reviews.  While many leaders in the people field are attempting to find a new way of making this historically dismal process far more productive and insightful, it’s core purpose remains the same.  We all need feedback as a checkpoint to see how we are doing. You need this information to continue to develop and grow in your career... and so does your boss.

No matter how terrific your boss might be, they need feedback too.  It’s easy when that person is unconditionally supportive, and provides you with clear direction and praise.  But what if he loses his temper quickly or never provides you with any constructive feedback. Perhaps she talks way too much about her kids during team meetings or is perceived as playing favorites on your team.  Just how exactly are you supposed to provide your boss with that feedback in a productive way?

Acknowledge It Can Be Scary

It can be rather intimidating to give the person directly responsible for your career information that suggests they have things to work on. Perhaps you are concerned that he will retaliate, when you share something that was hard to hear; or that she will penalize you for acknowledging she isn’t perfect. 

However, manager or not, nearly everyone acknowledges they aren’t perfect.  In other words, we ALL have things to work on to enable us to perform to the best of our abilities.  You look for your boss to have your back; provide the same for her.  By overcoming that initial fear, it is possible to have a two-way feedback conversation that is both diplomatic and productive.

Things Unsaid = Things Not Changing

While your boss might have many responsibilities, being a mind reader isn’t one of them.  Unless they proactively ask you for very direct feedback and you choose to share your opinion, they are largely operating in the dark with their team members.  Perhaps they are good at reading cues from the team, and can gauge if their style and approach is working well.  This is a challenge though.  Everyone is different and responds differently.  Often, team members end up venting to each other rather than sharing constructive feedback directly.  This isn’t particularly productive, because no one can fix what they don’t realize is broken.  When things go unsaid, it’s incredibly hard to make the change.  

If you had something you needed to work on, wouldn’t you want to know... so you could edit your approach and correct it?  Your boss feels the same way.

Do Some Prep

While feedback is important for both of you, take the time to consider whether your input truly needs to be delivered, how sharing it will impact your manager, and whether that information will end up helping—or hurting—you in the long run. As they say, pick your battles. Deliver the feedback you think your boss needs to hear and do it the right way.

Write it Down

Okay, we’ve acknowledged that telling your manager that she has some things to work on can be scary.  How do you approach it?  First, start by collecting your thoughts and writing them down.  Just as you would not want to receive confusing commentary about where you aren’t cutting it, taking the time to think through the points you are trying to communicate is important.  If you assume you are going to be a little nervous to share, carefully thinking through the message you want to land is vital.  

Don’t try to boil the ocean.  Focus on one or two major areas and supporting examples.  For example, if he sends you texts all day long with “emergency work” that needs to get done, you likely want to land a message to suggest, “You know I’m a team player and am always happy to pitch in; but when you send me a multitude of notes every day, it appears to suggest every project is on fire.  Thus, I don’t know how to reprioritize my other work.  Perhaps we could work together to help me determine what truly is a priority and what can be pushed off when these things pop up?”

Or maybe she has worked hard to give you the autonomy you asked for, and what’s resulted is a complete lack of direction and support.  Thinking through the message will likely have you sharing something like, “I love the autonomy you have given me to do my job, but I’d love a little more guidance on how my work is tying to the team goals and your overall expectations.  I just want to make sure I stay on track, and our outcomes for success are in sync.”  I don’t know one manager who would be put off or threated by those types of conversations.  Just keep it productive.  You’ll both benefit.  

Practice

Once you’ve collected your thoughts, play it out.  Perhaps run through the conversation in your head or say it out loud during your drive to work.  Think through how they might react and how you will respond.  Maybe do a dry run with a trusted friend or mentor.  The way in which you approach this conversation sets the tone for the entire discussion, so taking a little time to work through your approach can be the difference between a good conversation and a horrible one.

Think about how you like to receive feedback and apply similar judgment.  You’d be horrified if your manager blurted out criticism in front of your peers at a team meeting, right?  Managers are fallible and they need feedback too.  Keeping those insights professional and constructive will go a long way in your boss’s receptivity to hearing it.    

Bosses:  Make This Whole Process a Little Easier

Of course, this is all advice on what an employee can do.  Bosses, you can make this whole process a little easier by creating an environment where feedback of all kinds is encouraged.  Never set anyone up to feel comfortable sharing in hopes that all you’ll get is positive commentary.  If you are going to be so bold as to ask for the feedback, close your mouth and just listen.  Ask for examples, and thank your employee for sharing.  Then apply it.  If they were courageous enough to share, it’s very likely there is much accuracy in what they are suggesting you need to work on.  

Continuous learning is something we all benefit from in our careers.  Just as constructive feedback can make a significant improvement in your own performance, the same can be true of your manager.  Think it through, get prepared, take a deep breath and share.  You just might find both of you significantly benefit.


Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator