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How to give feedback to your boss: tips for getting started

February 3, 2023 - 18 min read

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What’s upward feedback?

Why is upward feedback important?

When should you give feedback to your boss?

4 rules for giving feedback

How honest should you be?

6 extra tips for giving effective feedback to your boss

Examples of giving constructive feedback

Thrive with feedback

Many people think that in organizations, feedback comes from the top down. 

But really, anyone can benefit from hearing feedback, even your boss. It may sound like a difficult conversation, but it's important to know how to give feedback to your boss. 

You might be nervous about doing so because you could get a negative reaction. Your mind jumps to a worst-case scenario, like getting fired. That fear is normal and understandable. With a little care, your worst-case fears are also probably unfounded.

Giving feedback — to your boss, your leader, or anyone else — seems scary until you learn how to share your point of view and provide constructive feedback respectfully and honestly. 

Don’t let fear discourage you, especially if you think you’ve got an excellent suggestion for improving efficiency and morale. Everyone should strive to be a team member that isn't afraid to give constructive feedback to their boss. Ultimately, it makes your workplace and employee experience better.

 

What’s upward feedback?

When an employee gives their boss feedback, it's called “upward feedback.” This term describes a situation where someone with lower seniority and power within the company provides feedback to someone with a higher rank.

Companies that prioritize this feedback direction are considered to have a positive feedback culture — and happier employees. If team members don’t feel comfortable sharing upward feedback, they’re 16% less likely to stay at the company.

Plus, employees regularly receiving meaningful feedback are over 3 times as likely to feel engaged at work, and those companies see an 18% reduction in turnover. That includes your boss.

Your boss may not know what it's like to do your job until they receive your feedback. They’re distracted by their own obligations and might need to hear your perspective to understand whether you’re overworked or dissatisfied. And if there's an aspect of your job you could do more effectively with a bit of change, providing input is helpful. 

Upward feedback doesn’t always have to center on big, challenging topics — it’s great for small problems and words of advice. While sometimes stressful, offering feedback is a great way to voice your ideas and stand out to senior management.

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Why is upward feedback important?

There are definite benefits to providing upward feedback. When other team members see that someone in their position has given upward feedback, they may feel more comfortable doing the same.

It empowers them to use their voice because they see that their boss values the ideas and suggestions of employees. This comfort creates a feedback loop where everyone in the company feels safe to share and benefits from different perspectives.

Rather than promoting a company culture where everyone fears giving feedback to managers, it's better to have one that encourages real-time feedback. Over time, your working relationship with your boss will become stronger and you’ll feel like your opinions have more value.

Engaged managers engage employees. Listening is important to make improvements. It helps them recognize where to optimize team performance levels and work more productively.

When should you give feedback to your boss?

If you're feeling hesitant about giving feedback to your manager, one of the first ways you can get through it is to perfect your timing. Sometimes it's appropriate to provide constructive feedback, but other times you need to wait for a better opportunity.

But if you have a problem or situation that you want to address, this isn't to say you should never bring it up. Pick a time that suits your boss so they can give their full attention to the conversation.

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Here are three situations where it's good to give your boss feedback:

1. During a one-on-one chat

When you and your boss are focusing on each other and your professional relationship, you can probably bring up any concerns. If you're nervous about expressing your concerns, you can understand that it's just you and them having a conversation. Nobody else is listening in and weighing in on your feedback if they are private.

If they’re meeting with you one-on-one to ask you for feedback and check in on how you're working, it's a perfectly appropriate time.  

2. A quick chat before or after a meeting

Rather than interrupting the meeting, wait until your boss isn’t trying to give new instructions and information. Bringing something up before a meeting may give your boss a chance to address the issue with other team members right away.

On the other hand, asking if you can quickly follow up on something they said in the meeting and how it represents a concern you have shows your boss you were, and are, paying attention to the functioning of the company. These are also times when your boss is already thinking about work-related items.

3. While you're doing a performance review

Performance reviews are a great opportunity to learn how to give feedback to your manager. 

Your manager will directly ask for your feedback on certain things in a performance review. Sometimes you're the subject of review, but discussing your relationship with your manager is an important part of your workflow. 

Your boss may have you fill out a form, send an email, or provide feedback verbally. Or organizations will sometimes offer the opportunity to provide feedback during an employee engagement survey as part of the performance review. 

Situations to avoid

There’s definitely an appropriate time and place to deliver feedback to your boss. It’s probably best to avoid providing input in front of other team members unless prompted. Try to stick to one-on-one situations, or have one team member there if you’re concerned about receiving a negative response.

Don’t call out a supervisor while clients are present — clients shouldn’t be there when internal issues are being worked out. 

Lastly, never provide feedback when you or your boss are angry and upset. Engaging in the heat of the moment is a surefire way to exacerbate a problem and reach an unsatisfying resolution. Take some time to cool off and collect your thoughts to bring the subject up later in a more constructive way.

4 rules for giving feedback

You can give your boss feedback differently, depending on what the feedback is about. Some specific examples include your workload, their expectations for you, and project management.

Remember to ask your manager if they have the time and are prepared to receive feedback so they aren’t caught off guard. 

Here are four tips to keep in mind while giving feedback to your boss:

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1. Work on your delivery 

Practice giving feedback to a friend or family member to get over nerves and choose appropriate language. Try to balance the negatives with positives — start by acknowledging a strength, but then explain how addressing a certain weakness will help that strength excel.

To make sure your feedback doesn’t come off as a personal attack, base it on observations and facts rather than judgments. A good way to be sure you’re not making it personal is by using verbs instead of adjectives. “Sometimes you interrupt others and forget to leave space for different opinions” instead of “You are sometimes bossy and controlling in team meetings.”

Consider using more “I” than “you” statements to avoid appearing accusatory and placing your boss in a combative or defensive position. If you use “I” statements, your supervisor will understand you’re expressing your point of view and not blaming them. 

For example, say “I feel you do a great job delegating tasks clearly to team members so we know what to focus on. But it doesn’t always seem like you consider our preferences when making these assignments. I think if we were asked for our input on who should own what tasks, we could better use our strengths and contribute more to the project.”

Keep positive and negative feedback clearly distinguished to avoid negating your compliments. A strength is still a strength. Focusing on the potential improvement your boss could make (asking team members for their input) and how it will benefit the team (letting everyone use their strengths) makes your feedback clear and constructive from the beginning. 

2. Ask for their response 

There are always two sides to a story. After giving feedback, give the recipient a chance to respond.  

This transitions your discussion into a conversation rather than a one-sided review and lets you confirm they’ve understood your feedback. It’s only at this point, when you both understand both sides of the situation, that you can devise an effective solution together.

3. Ask for feedback in return 

Once you’ve given feedback, ask for their input in return. This step demonstrates you’re open to constructive advice and value their opinion. 

Ask specific questions about your performance to show you want to hear from them and aren’t just asking as a formality. For example, you might talk about how you sometimes feel intimidated during one-on-ones. Once you’ve discussed this matter, you could ask if you could improve to make these meetings more constructive.

4. Put yourself in their shoes 

If you’re still unsure how your boss will respond to your feedback, try putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine the situation is reversed. How would you react if your colleague or subordinate gave you the same feedback? Would you be angry or grateful that someone pointed this out? 

Keep in mind differences in personality. It might be more difficult for some people to overcome a fixed mindset than others. But if you can honestly say you wouldn’t be offended receiving this feedback, it's a sign you’ve planned your delivery well.

How honest should you be?

When you're providing feedback, you want to be as honest as possible. Lying or not giving honest feedback won't give your boss accurate information to create change. Plus, lying to your boss won’t help your working relationship. 

Constructive criticism allows you to be honest and frames your feedback in a way that shows you want to help. Rather than disrespectfully criticizing your boss and their business, think of your input as helping to resolve issues in your workplace. Constructive criticism should provide ways of moving forward effectively rather than pulling things apart with no suggestions for rebuilding.

Negative feedback is inevitable, but offering constructive criticism to your boss will frame this crucial information gently. Offering concrete examples can help you deliver your manager's feedback politely.

If you have serious problems to address regarding your well-being or other aspects of your job, don't feel obligated to only discuss positive feedback. Issues will only get resolved if your boss knows the truth.

Your organization likely has someone in human resources to help facilitate these conversations. You can also lean on a coach or mentor for insight on how to best handle the situation if you’re stuck. 

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6 extra tips for giving effective feedback to your boss

It's time to prepare yourself for the moment you give your boss some feedback. To ease your anxiety, here are a few things that’ll make your feedback process successful. 

Review these final tips and think about how you can incorporate them into your feedback:

  1. Watch your tone and make sure you speak confidently but not aggressively
  2. Tell them in person so there's less room for miscommunication and misunderstanding
  3. Give feedback on one thing at a time so you're not overwhelming your boss
  4. Approach the conversation with a solutions-oriented and team-player attitude
  5. Don’t assume you know their side of the story
  6. Choose the time and place appropriately

Examples of giving constructive feedback

If you're at a loss for words and don't know how to frame your feedback, here are some feedback examples to help you introduce the topic to best state your case: 

  1. "I want to know if I'm on the right track with this project. It's been confusing for me so far, so can we discuss [x] in more detail?"
  2. "I'm having trouble keeping up with my tasks for the week. Can we discuss my workload and how best to manage it?"
  3. "I'm not sure who I can turn to for help with [x]. Is there anyone in particular I should ask for advice?”
  4. "I've been told to do [x] for this project, but last week I was doing [y]. Which way do you prefer me to approach this project?"
  5. “I’ve been working on this project for [x] months now, and I think I see some room for improvement in how we could be moving forward. Do you have time for me to discuss my suggestions now?”
  6. “I’ve been doing a little research and I think the team could benefit from pursuing the project from a slightly different angle. Would you be the person to talk to about this adjustment?”

Thrive with feedback

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No matter how long you've known your boss, giving them feedback can be stressful. 

If you've avoided opportunities to provide feedback in the past, you were likely uncomfortable, self-conscious, and unsure about how to approach these situations.

But now that you understand that feedback is an integral part of being a team member, we hope you feel empowered knowing how to give feedback to your boss. Be confident that the suggestions you have will only improve your workplace.

Your team members will thank you for it, too. You'll be a coworker that cares about how well your team does and inspires others to speak up. 

Over time and with practice, you'll gain the confidence to speak up and will no longer shudder at the thought of providing feedback to anyone.

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Published February 3, 2023

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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