Giving feedback to your boss – is it career suicide?

Imagine that you have a boss who’s making your life difficult. Maybe he doesn’t listen to potentially important input when it conflicts with his interests. Or he berates people, which leads to them censoring themselves. Or he makes snap decisions. Or he micro-manages, and thus becomes a bottleneck for the entire group. Furthermore, you think his actions are having a harmful effect on your team and organization. What do you do?


The prevailing opinion is that saying anything to your boss about his style and impact would be, as they say, career-limiting. But is this always as true as you assume it to be?


Executives don’t get a lot of feedback

Let’s look at the world of senior executives. Looking from the outside, people often think executives live in a feedback-rich environment, but, as my research team found years ago, they don’t. They get plenty of feedback about their decisions and policies, but not about their personal behavior. Specifically, how executives exercise power inhibits feedback to them, in several ways. First, their demeanor is often intimidating – whether quick and brilliant, or downright abrasive. Second, they have an exaggerated impact.  Because of their position, others hyper-sensitively scrutinize the least of the executive’s comments. As a result, the executive may avoid making casual pronouncements – further adding to the distance in relationships. Third, as executives move up in the organization, they can become more and more isolated and protected, which can cause them to lose touch with the levels below. Fourth, executives have the latitude to surround themselves with people in their own image, who are unlikely to offer critical feedback.


All of these factors powerfully hinder executives’ ability to get feedback, and thus to learn about their impact on others and on organizational outcomes.  The effects of this aren’t good. Senior executives systematically over-estimate the information they have about their organizations. They then make decisions and take actions based on the assumption that they possess all the relevant information.


…but they want it

Most of the executives I have coached hunger for constructive feedback from their reports. These executives make it as easy as they can for their reports – they talk about ways in which they’re trying to be more effective, and ask specifically for feedback about how they’re doing on particular behaviors. And their reports nod and agree to share feedback. And then what do the reports do? They continue to gripe to their friends and colleagues about their boss’s bad behavior, never directly sharing their concerns with the boss.


Sure, senior executives themselves are responsible for a big piece of this problem, by behaving in ways that hinder feedback. However, what are the costs if you self-protectively withhold your feedback?  If all your colleagues behave as you do, your boss is unlikely to learn about the downsides of his behavior, perhaps until a major crisis ensues.  So what can you do, if you want to influence your boss’s behavior, and survive the process?


Notice and question your assumptions.  Are you assuming that your boss is aware of the impact of his or her behavior?  That he or she intends to be causing the particular harmful effect you are experiencing? Perhaps not.


Consider some alternate interpretations. It’s possible that your boss isn’t aware of the impact of his behavior, and that he is intending something very different than you are experiencing. He may be micro-managing, not because he does not trust your competence, but because he doesn’t know another way to convey his expectations to you – or because he fears being held responsible for a bad outcome. Your boss probably has an intention that’s not evil, but that is psychologically important to him.


Observe how your own biases shape the impact of your boss’s behavior on you. When you feel offended because your boss didn’t ask for your input, you are bringing your own meaning to that interaction. If you personalize that behavior, and then directly leap to labeling him a jerk, you are missing the opportunity to explore your own emotional reaction to the action, and to tease out the element that has to do with your own patterns. Were your feelings hurt? Do you feel that’s an area where you want to contribute more, but you’re concerned that others haven’t appreciated your value in that area? Perhaps there is learning for you in that observation.


Understand what is required for feedback to be helpful.  Judgments aren’t helpful, nor are assumptions or interpretations about your boss’s motivations. Descriptions of the behavior and its effect on you and on outcomes, on the other hand, are helpful.


Convey your constructive purpose. Assume that your boss cares, as you do, about making your team or organization successful. How is your feedback intended to improve that outcome? What effect is his behavior having that he would not want to be having?  One executive I worked with was truly distraught to learn that his efforts to correct others’ performance had created a climate of fear and a reluctance to proactively make choices. When he heard that, he was ready to listen.


Inquire about the meaning of the behavior. This action is based on the assumption that your boss does have an intent behind his actions that isn’t being realized. If you really seek to understand what he’s trying to accomplish with his actions, this can lead you to a much deeper dialogue – and possibly some implications for how you can better help him accomplish those goals.


The best thing about learning to deliver upward feedback is, it can change you. It will teach you about your own meaning-making. More important, it will teach you that initiating difficult conversations with an organizational purpose in mind doesn’t necessarily damage a relationship – in fact, it can strengthen and even transform that relationship.



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