How to Give the Boss Feedback Without Getting Fired

What do you do when your boss says, “Please give me honest feedback on how I’m doing”?

Do you:

  • Feel comfortable and provide open constructive feedback?
  • Hold back and pretend everything’s okay because you don’t think they can handle the truth
  • Say little out of fear that any candid feedback will hurt your career?

Most of us fear giving anything but positive feedback. And receiving negative feedback is second only to giving it in difficulty. There’s some evidence that this fear is a natural reaction; our brains may be hardwired to react to negative stimuli. Yet feedback is essential to growth and improvement.

Chances are your willingness to provide feedback hinges to some degree on how comfortable and how confident you are providing upwards feedback. That’s easy to do if you have a great relationship with your boss and they’re doing a great job.

What if they’re not?

What if they micromanage or set unrealistic objectives?

Or maybe deep down you think they really don’t care about what you have to say?

Everyone needs feedback

The reality is this: Everyone, at any point in their career, can benefit from feedback. Just because someone is higher on the organizational ladder doesn’t mean they no longer have anything to learn. That includes managers, no matter how experienced they are.

So how do you give the boss candid, constructive feedback without getting fired?

Here are five tips that will help  avoid sticky or uncomfortable situations and provide potentially useful feedback that will be helpful to you and your boss.

1. Choose the right communication method

In most cases, a face-to-face conversation is going to be your best option to deliver feedback. Here’s why: Many communication experts believe that between 60% and 90% of communication is non-verbal, such as facial expression, posture, gestures, etc. If you see the boss shifting uneasily or looking out the window or rolling his eyes while saying, “Thanks, that’s helpful” what message is really being delivered? In this case, the non-verbal component trumps the spoken word. When you’re giving feedback face-to-face, you have an opportunity to respond to those non-verbal cues in real-time.

What if your manager prefers to receive performance feedback in writing or through an online tool?

The best advice is to choose your words carefully to ensure they are not taken out of context or misunderstood. Give your written feedback a careful proofread before hitting the send or submit button. Remember, you don’t have the advantage of seeing their body language and clarifying what you are saying.

2. Make it timely

Feedback is most useful when given soon after something has happened — ideally within 24 to 48 hours. Memories are selective and often unreliable. The more time that elapses, the greater the chance you or your manager will recall events or the context differently. If you know the timing isn’t right, document what happened. That way, when you have the chance to provide feedback, you have the ability to reference exactly what happened.

3. Be specific

Feedback needs to provide specific details to be useful. Telling your manager you don’t like the way she briefs you on new projects doesn’t help her understand what she’s doing wrong or what you don’t like.

Instead, be specific about what she can do to improve. For example, Rather than telling me how to do a project, it would be more helpful if you gave me the objectives and desired outcomes. Let me figure out what I need to do and come to you if I need help.”

Ideally, providing feedback with examples means agreeing with your manager on what you or they will do differently in the future. This leads to a win-win, collaborative approach that actually results in change.

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4. Ask clarifying questions

Questions can be your best friend in any feedback situation. This is especially true when you are asked to provide feedback and feel uncomfortable or unsure. For example, you could ask a question to set up your need for more information: “Thanks for asking me to provide feedback; I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts. Is it okay if I confirm a few things first so I have all the facts?” This approach shows your desire to have all the facts in order to provide well-framed, relevant feedback that is helpful.

5. When in doubt, ask

If you’re not sure whether your manager can handle candid feedback, especially if it is not all positive, it’s a great practice to simply ask if they are open to feedback. If the answer is “yes,” schedule a time to provide this rather than catching them off guard.

Support your company culture of feedback by doing your part

High-performance organizations understand the importance of ongoing feedback. That means everyone – executives, managers, and you – have a responsibility for living out your organization’s culture of feedback and providing it regularly throughout the year.

When your manager asks you for feedback, give it. Look at this as an important opportunity to not only help yourself, but to be true to your organization’s culture.