When it comes to workplace feedback, the tendency is to think in top-down terms. After all, improving employee performance through critical assessment and regular feedback is one of a manager’s primary duties. 

However, “upward feedback” — that is, feedback from employees to managers — is just as critical for professional development, trust building, and overall organizational success. The problem, though, is that providing feedback for your manager can be tricky and intimidating, particularly if the feedback is not of the positive variety. 

That’s why we’re covering three techniques for giving feedback to your manager that can help relieve some of your stress and make the process as smooth and painless as possible. 

Feedback for your manager: What not to do

Before we jump into the techniques that will help you provide feedback to your manager, here are a few things that you should definitely avoid when giving upward feedback. 

  • DON’T offer feedback from a what-I’d-do-in-your-position angle. (Hint: hearing “If I were you, I’d…” from a subordinate is not likely to be received well by any manager, no matter how solid your rapport.) Instead, focus feedback on your perspective with statements like, “I noticed at that meeting…” or, “When you do X, I perceive it as Y.” 
  • DON’T make accusations or speculate about the “why” behind certain behaviors or problems. Instead, simply provide the “what.” Employees have a limited perspective on their managers’ performance, and you’re likely not aware of all the dynamics of every situation or the stresses and demands your manager may be under. This is another reason why it’s important to always frame feedback in the form of your perceptions rather than what you’d do if you were in their shoes — because the truth is you really don’t know.
  • DON’T link positive statements and constructive statements with “but,” “although,” or “however.” While it may not be your intention, doing so can make the positive feedback to your manager sound disingenuous and inadvertently shut down your manager’s receptivity.
  • DON’T pick the wrong time and place to give feedback to your manager — namely, in front of other team members and subordinates. This can easily come off as confrontational and only serves to undermine both your manager’s authority and cohesion within your team or department. 

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Finally, though it should go without saying, you should never view a chance to give feedback as an opportunity to retaliate for any slight, whether real or perceived. Taking digs at your boss in a feedback session will only further damage your relationship and degrade any trust that was left between the two of you. 

How to give feedback to your manager: 3 techniques that actually work

Without a doubt, giving your manager constructive (read: not positive) feedback can be stressful. The first and most important consideration to make before presenting your manager with feedback is to determine whether the issue truly warrants addressing or is something that, while bothersome, is ultimately inconsequential to the success of your team and organization. Managers need to understand how they’re being perceived by subordinates in order to optimize performance, and the higher up the chain they are, the harder honest feedback is to come by. But the flip side is that pestering them with trivial complaints will only erode your relationship and bog down operations.

Next, you should consider the state of your relationship with your manager. There must be trust in order for feedback to be accepted positively. Additionally, if you know they are generally unreceptive to feedback or likely to have a negative reaction, you may be better off not saying anything at all. 

In a perfect world, every manager would routinely ask their employees for constructive feedback. Of course, here in the real world, we know that’s not the case. And while it’s generally not advised to give your boss unsolicited advice or feedback, sometimes it can’t — and shouldn’t — be avoided. In those instances, here are three techniques that will help you deliver even bad feedback for your manager in the most positive manner.

1. Be specific.

Easily one of the worst ways to deliver constructive criticism to anyone, much less your manager, is to speak in generalities. The most effective feedback — and the most well-received — is centered on specific, concrete examples. This is why it’s critical that you properly prepare for an upward feedback session and have notes that you can reference.

One trick to help ensure your feedback is specific and non-confrontational is to eliminate the use of adjectives. Think about it: If you were a manager, how would you feel being told you were “domineering,” “overbearing,” or “authoritative” by an employee? Adjectives tend to come off as judgments or even attacks on a person’s character, whereas specific examples can help illustrate how actions and behaviors are being perceived by and affecting others. 

2. Use more “I” statements than “you” statements.

This is another trick that will help you keep the conversation both specific and focused on your perspective, which, again, is limited. If the feedback is centered around a process or system you don’t think is working, try, “I noticed during the last project that X, and I feel it could be improved by Y.” 

Alternatively, if the feedback is more related to your boss’ management style or even a personality trait, frame it as, “When you do X, I perceive it as Y, and it causes Z.”  

3. Offer solutions.

Of course, this one won’t necessarily apply if you’re delivering feedback about a particular habit or personality trait.

But if the feedback is project- or process-related, providing solutions and alternatives will show your manager that you’re not simply offering criticism for its own sake — you’re actually invested in the team, the project, and the success of the organization overall. This can also help open up dialogue and facilitate a more fruitful session. 

Preparing to give feedback + sample 1:1 agenda

The key to a successful feedback session is preparation. Being intentional with this process will help ensure you’re not giving reactionary, emotionally charged critiques or blindsiding your boss.

First, make the request to your manager by asking if they’d be open to some one-on-one feedback. You can help make their decision easier by suggesting an opportune time, like after the close of one project or the beginning stages of one. It’s also helpful to let them know what the feedback is related to. 

Prior to the meeting, write down everything that you want to address, including your specific examples as well as alternatives and solutions if applicable. This way you won’t forget important details when the time comes. 

Finally, stick to an agenda to keep the session timely and focused. Here’s a simple, straightforward agenda you can use when giving feedback to your manager:

  • Brief check-in or rapport building
  • Delivery of feedback
  • Offering solutions or alternatives
  • Discussion (at manager’s discretion)

Remember: Constructive feedback that’s honest, well-intended, and delivered with tact can help facilitate positive change and optimum performance whether up or down the chain of command. What’s more, employees of an organization that allows for and encourages upward feedback are more likely to be engaged and invested in their work.

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