How to Deliver Tough Feedback in Ways Your Boss Can Hear It

Sharon dreaded her weekly 1:1 meetings with Jan, her manager, who worked two time zones away. Since these half-hour meetings were the only time they had a chance to touch base about pressing issues, Sharon had hoped that she would get much-needed guidance and answers to tough questions to move her work ahead. But the reality was very different.

Jan always came unprepared, never seeming to have read the notes that she’d asked Sharon to send in advance. Despite having an agreed-upon agenda, Jan incessantly veered off-topic, making almost every conversation all about her, rarely expressing interest or curiosity about Sharon’s work. And when Sharon was able to get a word in edgewise to ask for help solving a tough problem, Jan usually dismissed her request as trivial, which Sharon believed may have been a face-saving measure for Jan, who rarely offered relevant information. Most meetings ended with an action list that Jan rarely followed through on, claiming she “was too busy” or “misunderstood” what she was supposed to do.

When comparing notes with her teammates, Sharon found that she was not alone. After several months enduring these fruitless meetings, Sharon suggested to Jan that they decrease the frequency of their 1:1s, claiming that she “had everything under control,” instead of letting Jan know the real reason.

According to Joseph Grenny of VitalSmarts and author of the article How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them in Harvard Business Review, 80 percent of the 1,335 people his firm surveyed said their boss has “a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.” That’s a stunning percentage. And when people work remotely from their leaders, it’s much harder to cultivate the kind of trusting relationship that makes tough feedback easier to give, and to receive.

In this edition, I draw from my own client work as well as Grenny’s article to provide tips for giving difficult feedback to your manager, and for managers who want to make it easier for others to give them the feedback they need (if not want) to hear.


Speaking truth to power – tips for giving feedback to managers
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences. This applies to both giving and getting feedback. When it comes to giving negative feedback, people from certain countries typically value direct, candid feedback (think Israel, Russia, Netherlands, France and Germany), while people from certain other countries tend to tone it down, dress it up, or avoid  it altogether (think Korea, Japan, China and India). Americans tend to be somewhere in the middle. While we tend to soften the blow of negative feedback by praising people before we deliver the punch, this can confound those who expect our style of communications to be more explicit. What’s critical is to know where your own culture sits alongside the others’ culture in terms of evaluating performance, earning trust, communications preferences and other factors. (Read Erin Meyer’s excellent book, The Culture Map, for more insights.)
  • Lead with impact. Start by explaining the consequences of your boss’s behavior, and why it matters to you and to them, and then describe the offending behavior, using neutral, non-judgmental language. For example, Sharon may start by telling Jan: “I’m getting behind in my work because it’s taking too long to get the information I need from you. I was counting on our weekly calls for problem-solving and brainstorming ideas, but that hasn’t worked as I’d hoped.” Pause. Sharon would then be wise to choose a one or two behaviors to point out, rather than a laundry list. Example: “We almost always run out of time before I can discuss what’s on my mind. It seems as if you haven’t read the information you always ask me to send in advance, which means it takes time for me to bring you up to speed. And we rarely follow the agenda we had agreed upon. You often lead off with an unrelated topic, and I feel uncomfortable interrupting to get us back on track. I end up feeling frustrated that I haven’t been able to get the guidance I need from you by the time we end our meeting.”
  • Offer a few ideas, and expect no miracles. How your boss will receive your feedback depends on such factors as the strength of your relationship, their level of self-awareness and desire for self-improvement, ability to listen, personality, and culture. Although your feedback isn’t likely to spur a sudden behavioral shift or change in personality, suggesting a few concrete ideas can lead the way to small changes that can make a big difference.  Examples: “How about if I lead off our next meeting with the topic that’s most pressing for me? Let’s both keep an eye on the time and jump in when needed to keep things on track, even if it means interrupting. When I send you something to read in advance, I’ll highlight the key points in case you’re pressed for time. How about if we have two one-hour meetings each month instead of a half-hour each week, so we can have more in-depth discussions?” Start with just one or two ideas at a time, and then introduce others as you go along.
  • Own your part. Reflect how your own behavior may be contributing to problems with your manager. For example, if you feel your manager is being unresponsive to your emails, are you sending too many? Are they succinct? Is your hoped-for response time realistic, considering everything on your boss’s plate? In our example, Sharon can examine behavior she might change as well. For example, she may be sending out overly long documents for review without highlighting key portions.Perhaps she hasn’t set clear expectations in advance as to what help she’s looking for, or what kind of information will be helpful. Since she has trouble jumping in to steer meandering conversations back on course, she might role-play situations with colleagues to make it easier for her to interrupt unproductive conversations. The dysfunctional behavior really can be all coming from one direction, but in all likelihood, both parties may be playing a role.
  • Be neither passive nor aggressive, and certainly not both. Sarcasm is easy to detect, even when you’re meeting virtually, and it makes honest conversations really difficult. By being clear, direct and empathetic about how you’re feeling, you give the other a chance to reflect and respond. If you’re frustrated, say so, rather than simply emitting long, drawn-out sighs, hoping the other will catch on. If you’re angry, stifle the derisive chortle and be up front about what, exactly, sparked your ire. If you tend to hide your emotions with humor, save the jokes for another time and own how you’re feeling. If you’re angry, find a way to calm down before your conversation, or postpone it if you can. This is a crucial conversation where you have an opportunity to build mutual trust, if the conversation is honest and mutually-respectful.
Tips for getting honest feedback when you’re the boss
  • Ask for help. Making ourselves vulnerable is one of the best ways to earn another’s trust and open the way to giving, and getting, honest feedback. Admitting your own vulnerabilities lets people know that you are self-aware and signals that you’re open to getting help. Examples: “I apologize for the confusing messages I sent out this week. I’d love help reviewing my messages to make sure they’re clear next time.” O,r “I felt pressured to commit to unrealistic timelines last week, and I can see the effect it’s had. Can we do a reset and come up with more reasonable deadlines?” Demonstrating self-awareness and showing humility can help create an environment where others feel it’s safe to give you feedback.
  • Embed two-way feedback discussions into your meetings. This applies to both team meetings and your 1:1s. Set aside time for meaningful discussions instead of breezing through them. (When remote, use video whenever you can, given the importance of nonverbal cues.) Pose questions that demonstrate a genuine desire to make needed changes. (Examples: “I took your advice about trying to make our team meetings more engaging. What differences have you noticed?” Or, “I apologize that I have been slow in responding to your requests. What can I do differently to help you get the answers you need more quickly?”) If you’ve previously expressed intentions to make certain improvements, ask others to rate your efforts on a scale of 1-10 and ask what you can do to dial it up a notch. (If you’re using a virtual meeting tool, ask people to type in their ratings simultaneously, with anonymity if you feel it’s needed, to allow for greater candor.)
  • Get a coach. Ask a direct report, team member or peer with whom you have a trusting relationship to play the role of coach to give you regular feedback, either temporarily or longer-term. Identify areas of focus to improve, and together, assess your progress periodically and determine your next steps. Make this coaching relationship known across the team, and consider rotating coaches every so often to get different perspectives. Make it clear that this coaching relationship does not replace other means of giving feedback.

Whether people work from a distance from their bosses or work alongside them, when people feel they can’t deliver candid feedback to those in power, their performance suffers, motivation dissipates and enthusiasm evaporates. And when these leaders miss these opportunities to improve their own performance by learning from those in the best position to give them accurate feedback, their performance stagnates. As a result, team members, team leaders and the organization itself lose out.



Articles and checklists by Guided Insights:

Steps to set up and run a team learning session: Pose insightful questions, listen for humility and ask for help – downloadable PDF checklist by Nancy Settle-Murphy and Karen Eber

Daring Leaders Build Trust by Peeling Away the Armor, Choosing Comfort Over Courage

12 Tips for Building Trusting Relationships Across Your Virtual Team

Head Off Problems Up Front, Before Cultural Differences Get in the Way

Other helpful links:

Brene Brown’s website, where you can find tools and resources on the topic of courageous leadership

How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them – Harvard Business Review article by Joseph Grenny of VitalSmarts

The Bravest Leaders Use this Powerful Four-Letter Word More Than You Think– Forbes article by Amy Blaschka

The Culture Map – book by Erin Meyer

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