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How To Give Constructive Feedback To Your Boss Without Getting Fired

What happened when this Air Force pilot had to critique his general’s performance.

How To Give Constructive Feedback To Your Boss Without Getting Fired
[Photo: U.S. Air Force/Jim Hazeltine]

It was a typical morning when I headed to my job as a flight instructor at Luke Air Force Base. I checked my flight schedule—and discovered my wingman that day was going to be my general.

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I wasn’t exactly excited. I’d never flown with a general before, and I didn’t want to get into the cockpit and feel him scrutinize my every move. Can the CEO of your organization shadow you on your job all day? It would feel a little unnerving, right? But as it turned out, the experience was great training in something lots of people are scared to do: giving feedback to a senior leader.

My Hard Conversation With The General

The general was a regular fighter pilot like me, only older and more experienced. I figured that if I were in his shoes, I’d want to be treated like all the other pilots. So when he arrived, I planned and briefed the mission to everyone as I’d normally do.

After the flight, we debriefed on the team’s performance. When it got to the point where I had to give feedback on the general’s performance, I hesitated about being direct. Frankly, he was rusty. In the cockpit, I never felt unsafe with him, but I knew that if I were to fly with him again, I’d want him to improve on his stick and rudder skills.

I thought of all the different ways I could deliver the feedback. I could sugarcoat it, making it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. I could serve it up in a compliment sandwich: say something nice, sneak in the constructive criticism, then say something nice again.


Related: This Seven-Step Guide For Dishing Out Feedback Is Totally Idiot-Proof


But then I realized that downplaying the feedback wasn’t going to help him get better. To improve, he needed to hear the truth directly. I looked him straight in the eye, told him what I observed, and pointed to specific instances where he could improve. And then I waited for his reaction.

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To my surprise, the first words out of his mouth were, “Thank you.” He also asked for additional ideas on how to get better, which I provided. After expressing his desire to improve, he told us stories of flying in different airplanes and how flying operations have evolved. My colleagues and I spent the rest of the debrief absorbed in his stories. We walked away from the session with lessons learned and a greater confidence in each other.

I know that you might be thinking, “There is no way that I’m going to approach senior leaders in my organization and tell them what they need to do to improve.” And I’m not suggesting you do that just yet. Start with your team members first–those who you collaborate with on a day-to-day basis. When you deliver feedback to your colleagues in a way that inspires them to grow, you can influence the trust, candor, and performance of your team.

A great place to start bringing accountability to your team is to think about what you can do to spark an honest dialogue on performance. Here are a tips on how to do that:

Remove Your Ego

It’s not about you, your way of doing things, or your preferences. Feedback is about the other person and how they can improve.


Related: Six Habits Of People Who Confuse Ego With Self-Confidence 


In the best organizations, accountability-based conversations are just part of the organizational DNA. It’s not about egos, it’s about performance. When problems exist between two colleagues, they just discuss the missed expectations and work to resolve the problems together. No drama. No mess. A quick conversation, followed by tweaks, and everyone can get back to work with a focus on improving.

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Think Of Feedback As A Gift

You’re offering someone information that will help them get better. When delivered effectively, feedback can be a gift ­that the recipient wants to open.

When I bring this up in workshops I lead, a lot of people find this performance-based feedback hard to digest. They say, “You want me to tell my colleague where she screwed up? But I’m not her manager.” And while that’s true, I flip the question: “If someone had a problem with your performance, which would you prefer—that she go to your manager to discuss it, or that she come directly to you with it?” The choice seems clear.

Offer Examples And Guidance

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting ambiguous feedback. If you’re giving feedback, think of situations where the person can improve, and offer your own clear-cut suggestions for how.

Maybe one of your colleagues is always late for work or your direct report doesn’t take initiative. Instead of spouting criticism, offer them some tips that they can apply to make sure they’re on time–perhaps one that’s worked for you personally. If the problem is a lack of initiative, give them opportunities to show initiative, like asking them to speak up in meetings or assigning them to lead a project.

This type of problem-solving might feel counterintuitive to you. You might work in an organization where accountability is simply absent. Maybe your organization has standards but no one enforces them, so no one follows them. Or you might work in an organization where managers are the only ones who are responsible for bringing accountability to teams. So when two peers can’t get along, rather than addressing the challenge discreetly and directly, managers swoop in and deliver accountability by discussing standards and expectations with everyone, hoping the two subordinates will get the picture.

But when you take this approach, more often than not, problems go unaddressed and performance suffers. And in this kind of environment, giving effective feedback—to anyone—is going to be much, much harder.

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This article is adapted from SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success by Angie Morgan, Courtney Lynch, and Sean Lynch. It is reprinted with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.