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The emotionally intelligent way to give feedback to your boss

Here’s an approach to raising concerns with managers that won’t feel risky to you or whiny to them.

The emotionally intelligent way to give feedback to your boss
[Photo: Jag_cz/iStock]

No matter how much you like your boss or manager, there will always be some things about them (or the system) that you’d like to change. But speaking up about a problem or giving feedback to your superiors can feel awkward, to say the least. You don’t want to risk offending the people who hold your future in their hands.

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As it turns out, sharing some constructive criticism with your boss is a lot easier with a little emotional intelligence. Here are a few tips and pointers to help you do it tactfully.

First, shore up your reputation

Different things bother different people, and in differing degrees. If you look at your colleagues, chances are you can distinguish the stoics and the whiners. The stoics come to work without complaint every day, no matter what’s going on. That doesn’t mean they aren’t bothered by things happening around them, they just keep it to themselves. The whiners, however, let everyone know when something bugs them, from small annoyances to major problems. And make no mistake: Your boss knows who those whiners are, too, even if she never passes along their complaints to her own higher-ups.

Obviously, you’ll be most effective at giving upward feedback if you have a reputation for complaining only about the big things that really matter. This way, when you do go to the boss with a problem or request, it will carry more weight; your boss knows it takes a lot to get you to say something. And if you think you might be a whiner, try writing down your complaints in a notebook without talking about them to other people at the office. This way you can still get them out of your head, but in a way that doesn’t risk your reputation.

Schedule a separate meeting to raise the issue

Your boss probably hears fewer complaints than you might think. Most people want to make a positive impression on their superiors. No matter how much they might complain among their own coworkers, few people actually take those complaints upward. (Then they’re puzzled about why things don’t change.) But as long as you’re respectful, chances are you’ll be sharing useful information that your boss might not know about otherwise.

The way you decide to bring it up depends on what you know about your boss, of course. Not every boss is equally amenable to feedback, and those who don’t take criticism well tend to earn reputations as prickly managers. In addition to tuning into these subtleties, you should also try to raise your issue in a meeting where there aren’t other pressing items on the agenda. Better yet, consider scheduling a short one-on-one just for this purpose. That way you won’t be tempted to delay sharing your feedback until the very end of some other meeting, when there won’t be enough time to provide details.

Friends of mine who are therapists have told me that clients often bring up the most important thing in the last couple minutes of a session. It can take people a long time to work up the courage to say what they really want to. By scheduling a quick meeting just to talk about your concern, you can’t hide it in the middle of lots of other information.

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Be as specific as possible

If you’re going to point out something that you think needs to change, talk about the problem as specifically as you can. If the issue has to do with a certain incident or event, focus on exactly what happened and who was involved. Stick to the facts, including how the event affected you–both your reaction and any consequences on your ability to get your work done–but avoid speculating about others’ motives or intentions.

The reason to be specific is that the alternative is you trying to diagnose what went wrong–which you shouldn’t do. There are two problems with stating why you think the problem arose rather than simply what it consists of: First, you likely have only partial knowledge about why things are done the way they are around the office. As a result, you may be missing key parts of the context when you give your explanation The more emotionally intelligent approach is simply to leave room for your boss’s judgment and perspective in determining the underlying causes of whatever issue you’re raising.

Second, some of your diagnoses rely on assumptions about what drives other people’s behaviors. There’s no surer way to get someone on the defensive than to ascribe a motive that they don’t recognize in themselves.

Take these three tips to heart and chances are you’ll stop feeling so anxious about raising important concerns with your boss–who might even start to rely on your helpful feedback, and even intentionally solicit it.

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