When Your Boss Asks for Feedback

When the boss asks for feedback, be careful about what you say.

When a client hires me for a keynote or workshop, they’re usually looking to improve the way leaders share feedback with their teams. Sometimes they’re trying to help employees accept feedback with greater resilience and results. But every so often, a client will throw me a curveball, like this request that recently came through: “Can you help our employees give feedback to their line managers?”

Now that’s an intriguing question! Most of the workplaces I encounter are feedback hesitant. Some willingly dish it out, but do so politely, all bubble wrapped. It’s rare to come across a culture where feedback is embraced and elicited at all levels of an organization, especially at the top. That’s encouraging, but it also raises some reasonable concerns: What information should we share? How can we strike the right balance between candor and caution? And do our bosses really want to hear hard truths about themselves?

If your boss asks you for feedback, here are some ways to craft a helpful response that won’t hurt your standing or sanity.

Prepare before you share

You may be flattered by your boss’s request, but don’t jump right in. Take some time to reflect on what you’ll say, when you’ll say it, and how you’ll support it. Examples to illustrate your point make your feedback more constructive and credible. It’s also smart to ask your boss about their feedback styles. What kind of guidance do they typically find useful? Would they prefer a face-to-face conversation or an emailed summary? Bid for time and information — your feedback will be stronger.

Be honest and specific

Candor is kind when it’s shared with care. Focus on behaviors, actions, and specific situations rather than making personal judgments. (And whatever you do, don’t serve a praise sandwich.) For instance, instead of telling your boss that she’s a bad listener, you could say, “I’ve noticed that during team meetings, there have been times when it seemed like you might not have heard all perspectives.” Or instead of labeling your boss as scattered or unfocused, put the matter more broadly: “I’ve noticed that you jump from idea to idea in our brainstorming sessions.” Brutal honesty shouldn’t be brutish – after all, this person is still your boss.

Choose the right time and place

When giving feedback, timing is everything. Find an appropriate and private setting where both you and your boss can comfortably discuss the topic without distractions or interruptions. Don’t talk about sensitive issues in front of team members, and make sure to share feedback during low-stress moments. And it’s always good form to ask your boss permission to share feedback, even with an invitation. “You asked me to offer my take on how you’re doing. Is now a good time to discuss that?”

Don’t play boss

When your boss asks for feedback, it can be tempting to imagine all the things you might do if you were in his or her position. Resist the urge to “play boss” — stick to the observations you’ve made from the backseat. Remember that you are seeing only a partial picture of your boss’s performance and may not appreciate or realize the demands he or she is facing. This is a time for helpfulness, not hubris.

If more bosses asked for feedback (and genuinely meant it), they’d get the insights they want and the information they need. Employees can help their bosses look good and do better. When feedback goes both ways, each side wins.

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