Your manager’s job is to help you be incredibly effective at yours.
This means it’s their job to give you access to tools, knowledge, and feedback to help you improve your work. And we all expect to get feedback from our boss — even when it’s negative, and even if we don’t like it.
But it’s rare at work for that feedback to flow upwards.
First of all, giving your boss feedback is scary. Most of us are naturally inclined to tell our boss what they want to hear, simply because they are in a position of power. But even when we have those moments that we think something could be done differently or better, it’s not usually acceptable to say so. After all, it’s not your job to tell your manager how to do their job. It is your job to figure out how to work with them better and align your performance more effectively.
I’m lucky to work at Popforms where, while we do have a clear chain of command just like any other company, our culture is also much more informal and collaborative; given that it’s primarily just the three of us working together, feedback often flows in all directions.
However, at larger, more structured companies, most people don’t have the opportunity to give their manager(s) feedback. Or if they do, it often comes as a surprise during a 1:1, when they are caught off guard and suddenly asked to comment on their boss’ management. Thoughts come pouring out, unpolished and unrefined, which usually means they aren’t all that helpful either. While providing feedback during those times where it is solicited from you is great, there are also other ways to provide upward feedback through less formal avenues.
Even managers can afford to improve at their jobs. Here are our best suggestions for providing valuable, appropriate feedback to your manager that don’t break the chain of command or work social conventions, and that can help you both work more effectively together.
Why upward managing is good (sometimes)
I’m not here to advocate that you constantly voice your opinion about your manager or how they manage directly to them. That’s not appropriate, and almost always not appreciated. But, from time to time, when done tactfully, providing feedback to your manager can be really useful for both of you!
Your boss is there to help you do your job successfully. They (should) want to foster the most productive and healthy work environment they can for their entire team. Letting them know how to do that will enable them to help you succeed at your job!
Especially if your boss is the one doing something that is blocking you from doing the best job possible or managing in a way that could be more effective for everyone involved, it is important to fix that problem. After all, they likely don’t realize or don’t intend to be blocking you. Communicating this type of feedback to your boss in a thought out, useful manner can make both your lives (and jobs) easier.
However, you do have to be tactful. No matter how big or little your input is, your boss is likely to be caught off guard. Even if your boss is open to hearing how they can help you be successful at your job, they aren’t used to getting critiqued; the last person they’ll be expecting unsolicited feedback from is someone they are in charge of managing.
You don’t want to offend or surprise your boss when you’re providing negative feedback. Which is why what I am suggesting is different than the format you normally receive feedback in as an employee; giving upward feedback to your manager often looks quite different and requires approaching the situation with tact and preparation.
Luckily, there are ways to provide upward feedback that won’t hurt your relationship with your boss (or worse) and still enable you to be the best at your job by helping your manager do theirs.
How to (actually) give negative feedback
Offer suggestion statements.
Suggestions that are said in a statement format are usually more effective than regular suggestions.
Instead of suggesting: “What if we did it like _______?”
Say: “I think it would help if we did it like _________.”
The statement format is more assertive than the question format, while remaining polite and deferential. It demonstrates you have an explanation for why you think your method would work (i.e. it would help make meetings go faster or whatever) instead of sounding like you’re thinking aloud about an issue or telling them you know best.
A suggestion statement also invites conversation far more than a question does. It allows your boss to engage with you and say “No that won’t help because X,”and provide their rationale for why they think your suggestion won’t work instead of just saying no. Or alternately, they may ask to hear more —this could be the beginning of getting your new theory implemented.
A good manager will be open to talking about ways work can be better, so frame it as such. Don’t critique them as a person or their performance; no one is receptive to personal criticism, no matter how accurate you think it is. Instead, offer suggestions for the work or team.
Don’t ever focus on the negative!
Your feedback to your manager should never imply that you think what they are doing is wrong or dumb. It’s like giving feedback to anyone else: no one wants to hear that you think they’re doing it wrong. After all, they almost certainly think what they are doing is right; that’s why they’re doing it.
And they know how to do their job. You might not like their method, but you certainly shouldn’t criticize it.
Instead of saying: “It would be better if ____”(which strongly implies the current method isn’t good enough and/or that you don’t like it, without isolating what you’re trying to improve)
Say: “We could try doing ______ in order to resolve ___”. Even better if you can bring in examples or data that support your idea, so your manager has good reasons to agree or tell you why that situation doesn’t apply.
Framing what you think would be better as a suggestion statement along with a rationale for why you think it is better (without actually saying it’s better in your opinion) sounds improvement-oriented and avoids any negative implications.
Keep in mind that there are factors you and your manager don’t have control over.
It is easy to forget that companies have policies, politics, and certain procedures that must be followed. It is helpful if you can understand how these factors may influence your managers’ability to manage. There may be reasons that certain things happen or can’t happen due to external factors, and it’s not just that your manager is a jerk or bad at their job. :)
If you can, try to find out about these types of factors before you even try to provide feedback to your manager.
For example, if your boss doesn’t provide feedback on projects until weeks after you’ve turned them in, and you’d like feedback sooner, start by politely asking, “Would it be possible to get feedback on X project by next Friday? I’m turning it in today.”
Give them a deadline or goal to achieve, rather than just telling them, “I don’t want to wait too long for feedback.”Create a concrete way that they can help you.
If there are extenuating circumstances, like the fact that XYZ process makes your manager unable to assess your projects right away, you’ll find out the answer to your issue without offending your boss with irrelevant feedback.
If on the other hand, it is simply something that your manager needs to improve on or didn’t realize was blocking you, you’re likely to have started a conversation about the issue. Try and keep it professional and positive while you negotiate a feedback schedule that works for both of you!
It is important to recognize extenuating circumstances that don’t affect you personally but may dictate how your manager can manage. Try to find out what those constrains are and be understanding of them; it’s not always your manager’s fault.
You can’t change something just because you don’t like it.
It’s not uncommon to blame your boss for something that you don’t like. However, just because something irks you or isn’t done the way you’d like it to be done, that does not give you license to insist that it happen your way under the pretense of providing feedback.
Issues that are really more of personal issues or opinions about your boss’management style should not be expressed. For example, if they talk too much in meetings —well, that is your problem to learn to work around.
If it’s an issue that you think is affecting your ability to work and really demands attention, though, you can share, “This is how X affects me…”(it’s helpful to cite an actual situation with real results, as opposed to just saying “You talk too much in meetings) then you can give your manager insight about how something they’re doing impacts you without making any demands of them about how or why they should change it.
Always explain why you’d like to see a change!
When you’re providing upward feedback, it’s particularly important that your boss understand your rationale behind specific feedback and comments.
Going back to our example about a quicker turnaround on feedback about projects, it’s much more productive if you explain that you’d like feedback faster so that you can track mistakes you’re commonly making and remedy them in your future projects instead of just asking for feedback sooner which sounds like a complaint about management.
Talk about why certain things are important to you, or why making these changes would add value to the team. This way, even if your boss doesn’t take your exact suggestion, they are more likely to do something else that would still address your why.
Take the focus off what you think your boss is doing wrong and tell them how they can make you or your team more efficient, productive, etc.
This piece of advice applies anytime you give feedback to someone. We’ve talked about it in other posts but here it is again:
If you want to see changes actually implemented, it is helpful to suggest them (since your manager can’t read your mind!)
Instead of pointing out the problem, focus on what the solution is.
Don’t say: “Our meetings are too long.”
Say: “We could cut down meetings to half an hour if we ___ (distribute an agenda via email before the meeting, etc.)”
Ask learning questions!
Most of the time when we are asking for something to be changed we frame the issue as a yes or no question. i.e., “Can you (the boss) make meetings shorter?”
It’s more helpful to ask open-ended questions that don’t sound judgmental. Asking if your boss can make meetings shorter implies they somehow intentionally are making them long and it’s solely their responsibility that meetings are long.
A better way to phrase the same question would be, “What could we all do to make meetings more efficient? How could each of us prepare?”
The latter question doesn’t demand any change; instead, it provides an opportunity for everyone to learn from each other, and it’s forward looking. Creating a shared responsibility for things that could be improved deflects attention from your manager but puts the issue on their radar to fix.
Choose your battles wisely!
Giving feedback is always a tricky situation. Your relationship with your manager is not only an important one on a day-to-day basis, but it’s also one that will dictate what opportunities you are offered later on.
Only give feedback that you truly think will make your boss and you better at your jobs. It’s not worth ruining a positive relationship with your boss in order to fix a few tiny things you don’t like. Use your discretion and always, always go about it tactfully.
Have you ever provided a manager with negative feedback? How did you approach it?
For more techniques on approaching difficult conversations
- Harvard Business Review Press has an entire guide to managing up and across.
- Prepare for high-stakes and high-intensity dialogues with “Crucial Conversations.”