How to Give Negative Feedback to Your Boss

June 30th, 2016


By Michael Solomon, 10x Management Co-Founder & Edward Sullivan

Giving negative feedback to your boss is a delicate art. We all feel the need to give feedback to a superior now and again, but many of us shy away from it because we don’t want to rock the boat. But the truth is, the ability to speak truth to power — to give feedback to management — is what often separates good employees or consultants (contractors, freelancers, 1099’s, etc.) from great ones (for more on this and how to manage 10x-level talent, check out our upcoming book, Game Changer).

But before you launch into a tirade and dump out all of your frustrations on your boss, it’s helpful to ask yourself 4 questions — the same questions Sufi philosophers have taught people to ask themselves before speaking. They are called the Four Gates of Communication.

  1. Are these words truthful?
  2. Are they necessary/beneficial?
  3. Can it be said in a kind way?
  4. Is this the appropriate time?

If you can honestly answer yes to all four of these questions about the subject at hand, then you are probably ready to give constructive feedback to your boss. Answer no to anyone of these, and it might be best to wait.

Once you’ve passed each of the Four Gates, it is time to plan your approach to talking to your boss about whatever it is you feel they need to hear feedback on. At 10x Management, we encourage our freelance tech consultants to provide direct and constructive feedback to our customers (their clients or who they report to for any given project) using a simple process.

Before Your Meeting

  1. Do your homework. Before you even make an appointment to speak with your boss about the issue, make sure you do a self-assessment to determine your role in the problem. Have you distorted or misrepresented any facts? Have your emotions gotten the best of you? Is talking to your boss the right way to go about this? If this is a question of how you are being treated by him/her, take an honest look at your own behavior first.
  2. Identify what you want the conversation to achieve. What do you want to accomplish? Are you simply trying to make your superior aware of how he or she comes across? Do you expect them to change their behavior and if so, what would that look like? Ensure that you’ve thought about some possible solutions and understand what you want to achieve. Keep in mind people only change when they want to, so be sure you know what kind of person you’re addressing.
  3. No surprises. One of my first bosses told me on my first day of work, “Our number one job is to make each other look good.” What he meant was, let’s not throw each other under the bus in public. If you have critical feedback to provide, a public forum is probably not the best forum.
  4. Schedule your meeting strategically. Certain times and places are better to deliver feedback. Consider broaching the subject with your boss beforehand and explain why you wish to talk with them. Your main goal is to create a safe environment that will be conducive to your boss taking in the information you’re saying versus feeling blindsided and getting defensive. If for some reason, the time you scheduled turns out to be a bad time, don’t be afraid to postpone your meeting. There is no reason to get your head handed to you, because they just had theirs handed to them in a preceding meeting.

During the Meeting

  1. Start off with assurances. Your boss might not have a clue about what’s bothering you. Keep in mind bosses act defensively when they feel threatened in some way (example: They may feel like you’re challenging their authority, competence or ability to manage a team). Put them at ease by starting off with something like, “I respect and understand your authority in this situation and I have a strong desire to build a positive working relationship with you.” And then state your intention and what you’d like to achieve from this meeting. Ask him or her if they agree or would like to add anything.
  2. Keep the work at the center. This is a term we borrowed from a famous Harvard leadership professor Ronald Heifetz. When your feedback centers around doing what’s best for the company or how you can be set up to do your job better, it becomes less about YOU and your needs and more about the company. Stick to neutral observations, no one likes to be blamed or accused of things. And acknowledge your role in the situation to the fullest extent possible. Try to summarize what’s been said out loud so you’re on the same page and understand what’s been solved and what still needs resolution.
  3. Know when to back off. Some bosses are better than others at taking feedback. If you think you are only going to tarnish the relationship by pushing an issue, back off and pick up the issue in another way or save it for another time. Above all, keep your cool. Bosses that can’t take feedback often develop toxic relationships with their teams, and this isn’t a situation you want to be in. If this is the case, consider thinking about switching teams or organizations.

After Your Meeting

  1. Be gracious and say thank you. Regardless of the meeting outcome, it’s a classy gesture of professionalism.
  2. Document the interaction. Keep a log of what you spoke about when. If things go off the rails and you get blamed for a bad decision or worse down the line, you’ll want to be able to defend yourself with all the information you can. If appropriate, send a recap email to them that outlines the conversation and next steps.

Do you have other helpful tips for providing feedback up the food chain? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments section!

If you liked this article you might also enjoy reading Working with Freelancers – 4 Steps for Success.