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Real Talk with Your Boss, How to Do It

Providing and receiving feedback is an important part of your career development. Those we work closest with can have unique insights on what we do well and what we need to work on. Peer to peer feedback between colleagues, however, can feel less risky than providing upward feedback to your manager or project supervisor. Maintaining good relationships and building trust with your manager are important, and providing critical feedback can sometimes strengthen this relationship but also risks compromising it.

Before engaging in upward feedback, think in advance about what you would like to say and also about how your manager might receive it. To help you make this determination, this article from the Harvard Business Review shares some key principles to remember:

Do:

  • Be certain your boss is open and receptive to feedback before speaking up
  • Share with her what you are seeing and hearing in her organization or unit
  • Focus on how you can help her improve, not on what you would do if you were boss

Don’t:

  • Assume your boss doesn’t want feedback if she doesn’t request it — ask if she would like to hear your insight
  • Presume you know or appreciate your boss’s full situation
  • Give feedback as a way to get back at your boss for giving you negative feedback

As you prepare for the conversation, also keep in mind the components of strong feedback, whether it is upward feedback or otherwise. Our friends at The Management Center think about feedback as a three-step process:

  • Share what you see, what you’re concerned about (or what you love) and/or the pattern you’ve noticed
  • Ask questions to see the other’s side and understand better
  • Wrap-up with next steps

For a sense of what this might sound like in practice, consider this example:

“I wanted to talk to you about something I’ve noticed over the past few weeks of working together, and was wondering if you felt the same way. I think our whole team has been busier than usual, and I can see that you also have a lot on your plate. Because of that, I wanted to see if there was a way that I can make requests to you more efficiently going forward. I know I send you frequent emails, and because your inbox is probably filled to capacity these days, it most likely impacts how fast you can respond to my requests, some of which are pretty time-sensitive. I was thinking that scheduling a quick mid-week 10 minute check-in meeting might be better than sending you so many emails, but it would be great to get your thoughts at our next meeting. Thanks in advance, I just want to make sure that I’m able to keep the current project on-track, and hoping that making a few tweaks to our communication process will help.”

As you can see, the example closely followed the three-step process and starts with the employee sharing what they saw and elaborating on how it was impacting them and their work. Then, they asked questions. Asking questions can be a good tool to check for understanding and alignment to see if you and your manager are noticing the same things. The example ends with suggestions of some tangible next steps that involve both the employee and their manager taking ownership.

Given how delicate providing upward feedback can feel, it is worth considering what you need from your manager early on or in advance of a project getting underway. Engaging in this process of proactive planning is often referred to as managing up. The Management Center put together an additional resource about managing up with some phrases to help you get the conversation started. Even if after these discussions you find that you still need to provide feedback to your manager, managing up can help provide context for feedback to your manager later on.

We hope some these ideas and resources are helpful as you consider best practices for providing upward feedback. As daunting as this can feel, it’s imperative to establish communication and transparency with your supervisor. Additionally, if built into check-ins or regular intervals, providing and receiving feedback can feel more routine and expected for both you and your manager. As a final tool to assist with that specifically, consider adding The Management Center’s 2×2 Feedback Form to your check-in agenda. It’s an easy to use form that ensures you’re both given the opportunity to give and receive feedback.

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