Providing your boss with honest feedback –
Is it something to be avoided? A CLM (career limiting move), or a CTM (career terminating move)?
Maybe it is important and necessary? A way for the individual to grow and develop?
Or….“if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.
Saying nothing may save you from a CLM or CTM, but are you serving your company, your colleagues or yourself by not providing warranted feedback?
Feedback is necessary and beneficial for your senior leader, the company, and even you and your team!
So, back to the question. How do you provide your boss with honest feedback?
It depends on a number of factors: whether or not critical feedback is accepted within the culture of your organization, how open the individual is to hearing about areas for improvement, (I’m making the assumption that all leaders are open to hearing positive feedback), how information is presented, and what’s going on for the leader that particular day.
Let’s start with culture
Is your company culture one where openness and transparency is encouraged? Are mistakes seen as learning opportunities? Are you able to call out your colleagues and superiors to hold them accountable without fearing for your job?
Where organizational leaders espouse such a culture, it may be easier, more acceptable, and expected to provide constructive feedback. Where this is not the norm, providing feedback to a more senior leader can be a tricky situation.
Know your audience
Knowing your audience is key, says Senior Executive Assistant Lori Mior. She shares her experience: “there are many senior leaders who pay lip-service to their desire for candid feedback”. My experience is that this exists even in companies where the culture encourages feedback.
Darrell Haight, President and CEO of Trace Associates Inc., believes that the personality of the leader is a big factor. His personal tendency is toward direct feedback, however, he acknowledges that others might not appreciate the same.
Your leader’s background, age, and career path have a huge bearing on the individual’s receptivity to feedback, states Judy Hansen partner at Impact8. Another consideration is each individual’s perception of their own value and commitment to the organization. There are individuals who do not want to become better leaders or believe that receiving information from people lower in the organization is not valuable.
CEO of William Joseph, Ryan Townend, is not one of them! He needs (and expects!) his people to give him constructive feedback and not just be ‘yes’ people.
The relationship between parties will affect the way that feedback is handled says Brenda Rehaluk. Handling the situation in an appropriate manner for your relationship will ensure that the leader doesn’t feel awkward or combative.
Most employees just tell their leaders what they think they want to hear is Doug Macnamara’s experience and not too many bosses welcome constructive input. Doug’s had the good fortune of having some great bosses. He observes that “it’s the ones that aren’t so great that ideally NEED the feedback.”
Macnamara shares that it is ALWAYS a risk to provide constructive feedback. Bosses with whom he has had a good relationship have been unnerved when he has provided it. In his own case, constructive feedback has made him ‘smart’ when it was received, despite welcoming it.
Timing is everything
Like most things, “timing is everything”, states Patricia Pitsel, Ph.D. She recommends waiting until everyone has cooled down before suggesting a different way of behaving. When you and your senior leader have come from a contentious meeting where emotions ran high, it is not the best time to have a frank discussion about the boss’s behavior. Another poor idea is to ambush the leader in the hallway or the coffee room. Those “off-the-cuff”, “on-the-spot” conversations may cause both you and leader embarrassment.
Immediate action is never taken. Therefore, in-the-moment feedback will usually not bear fruit. Scheduling a meeting with the leader is more appropriate and reasonable.
Mior has found success by approaching senior leaders 24 hours after the fact. She has started the discussion by stating “I was thinking about your comments in yesterday’s meeting and wondered…..”. This approach shows that the feedback is not reactionary and allows the individual to depersonalize comments.
What’s the risk?
Senior leaders have a say over your career which creates personal risk associated with giving critical feedback to that individual. Consideration of that risk may modify your approach in having the conversation.
Organizational risk may increase should certain behaviors continue. Reputations, clients and business may be lost, leading to negative impacts on revenue. I’m referring to behaviors that may include things like hitting on a business partner’s husband or wife, showing up inebriated at a work related function or possibly even at work, chastising team members in a social setting, or bad-mouthing the company or clients in public.
To address any type of behavior, Finance Transformation Specialist, Eugene Van Den Berg, advocates talking through the facts and providing feedback on that basis. Keeping personality, judgments, and value statements out of the conversation can be challenging, but necessary.
Ask for permission
Cathy Freer-Leszczynski recommends asking senior leaders if they want direct feedback. Hoping that the leader will understand cloaked input is ineffective. Unwanted feedback will not be well received.
Van Den Berg notes that many leaders have trusted advisors. A genuine trusted advisor engages with the leader on many options and solutions and can weave critique and valuable information into discussions. In doing so, the trusted advisor may not have explicitly asked for permission to provide feedback. However, in the context of the relationship, it is an expectation.
What is your intent in providing feedback?
Learning and Development Director, Ian Daley, notes that it is essential to start conversations with the following: “My intention is….”. Conversations surrounding critical feedback tend to be messy. Setting out intent and framing it positively helps set the right tone from the outset. For example, “My intention is to provide you with feedback so that you’re aware of the impact your behavior is having on the team. Ultimately, I want you and your team to be successful. Can I share this with you?”
Bonnie Cochrane shares sage advice that applies to any situation: “When providing constructive feedback to anyone – subordinate, superior, or family member, it is best received when it is provided in the context of your care and concern for the receiver, personally, or for the organization more broadly. When you provide the feedback from a position of genuine care and concern it has the best potential to be received and used in a meaningful way. You need to connect to the hearts and minds of the receiver and help the individual understand “why” you are providing them this feedback.”
Know what you are going to say
This sounds like a no-brainer! But, you’d be surprised how many people actually blurt out feedback without much thought or consideration for the message, meaning, and its impact on others. Crafting a message that can be accepted without rancor is important in maintaining and building relationships.
Initiating conversations with senior leaders without preparing and knowing what you are going to say is ill advised. Preparation is critical.
How do you prepare for these discussions?
Look for my follow-up article: How to provide your boss with honest feedback – Part 2 – Process