Something’s not going well at work. Maybe your manager isn’t giving you the input you need, said something inappropriate, or is regularly making a basic mistake in their own work that affects you. Either way, you’re navigating one of the most difficult landmines of the workplace: having to give your boss some difficult feedback. Should you approach it differently from the feedback you’d give a peer? Should you keep your head down and avoid it altogether? Well, that depends. As Bright + Early’s unofficial expert on conflict resolution (check out my tips on squashing work beefs here), I’ll share some of my most effective ways of handling upwards feedback, and check in with our B+E Expert Network along the way. 

Note that we’re talking here about general day to day feedback situations, and not big things like safety, harassment, violence or discrimination issues. Those should have their own escalation process in your organization.

“Steph, I don’t want to have to give my boss feedback. Shouldn’t they know their job better than I do?”

Sure, but they’re not mind readers, so if something they’re doing is causing problems they may not know until someone tells them. While their position of power (and job description) places them generally in charge of setting the vibe and ensuring quality work is happening, managers are humans, and humans that you’re meant to be doing teamwork with. They too have flaws and lives, and may be going through stuff that you’re not aware of. They might also have different context and priorities that would explain some of their behavior. Communication is key to get them to understand how they’re showing up for you, and for you to in turn, understand them. In an ideal world, you and your manager would have already had a conversation about how you both prefer to give and receive feedback, and they should be regularly soliciting it from you. 

“Something to consider in a time when things are going well, or perhaps at performance review time, or when you’re establishing a relationship with a new manager, is simply asking your manager how they like to hear feedback: “If I’m ever in a position that I need to give you feedback, how do you like to hear it? What’s the best way to approach it with you?” - Anonymous

If that’s not happening, and you need a way to broach the subject, read on.

“I’m not really sure how my boss will take direct feedback. Do you have any tips to start with if I’m too scared to say the thing?”

My suggestion: Use a framework to make the feedback easier to hear. 

Giving feedback directly doesn’t have to be awful, and using a framework like COIN should help. This is the same kind of framework leaders learn in good-quality manager training. The goal is to think the feedback through and prepare it in a way that is clear and actionable. Importantly, these frameworks all suggest keeping the focus off of the personal. It’s not about confronting or judging who they are as a person, but about something they’re doing (or not doing) that’s impacting you. 

I often find just the process of preparing feedback with this kind of framework forces me to spell out what exactly my issue is. This gives me a good sense of whether the thing is as big as it feels, and it gives me a good coherent message to deliver instead of winging it and getting mixed up or emotional (I’m a cryer!) when it comes to delivery. Practicing helps too! 

If you are worried about a negative emotional reaction from your manager, you can try couching to set the tone. Start with something like: “I really appreciate you taking the time out for me and the work that you do to create a safe environment for me to share feedback / ask you for help”. Even if this is not always the case, you are appealing to their better nature and you have planted a seed. 

“My boss isn’t known for receiving criticism well. What can I do that’s a bit less direct?”

My best tip for when you can’t be direct: turn the criticism into an ask or an offer.

One of the most common successful indirect feedback strategies is to flip the script. If your boss is letting you down in some way, it’s a problem that’s impacting you and your work. But remember, their main job is to get you to do your job well, and so is yours, so fixing this thing is in everyone’s best interests. Just note that if you’re not labeling the problem specifically, then it may take some time before they pick up the hint and get you a satisfactory resolution.

First, spend a bit of time thinking about the problem from the lens of what you need, then you can go in with an ask instead of a direct criticism or a problem. 

If you can spend time thinking about what’s on their plate and what they need,  then you can frame your feedback or need as a solution that’s going to make their job easier. That’s going to feel good, and paint you as the thoughtful and proactive team member that you are. Check out this great framework from Lara Hogan for more on reframing and selling your ideas and influencing when you’re not in a position of power.

Here are some examples for flipping the script on a few common pieces of boss feedback:

Instead of:

“You are always on my back. I hate being micromanaged, it’s so stressful!”

Try an ask / offer:

“I feel like I’ve got the hang of this, and am ready to try working independently on it and free up some of your time. How about we set some official check points so I can keep you updated with progress and get your feedback and any needed advice on the things I’m not sure about? Can we test that out over the next few months?”

Instead of:

“You are always piling on new work and distractions. I cannot get it all done and meet our agreed deadlines.”

Try an ask / offer:

“I’d love your support on time and priority management. Can you share your best practices for triage and managing competing deadlines while making sure work quality doesn’t suffer? I have a few things I’m juggling right now, and would love your advice on what to prioritize and deprioritize, and how to avoid getting into this situation too frequently.”

Instead of:

“You need to listen to your employees. We’re not whining, you are missing valuable input that’s costing us time and money.”

Try an ask / offer:

“I tracked my productivity over the last month and found X% of my time went to duplicated or canceled work, and X% was spent on troubleshooting this recurring issue with our client database. I have some easy ideas for permanent solutions to this so that we can spend more time on revenue generating work. Can I set 30 minutes up on Tuesday to talk you through them?”

“There’s no way I can even do that, I feel stuck. What are my options?”

When a situation is not working for you, you have three main options. 1) try to change it, 2) try to accept it and 3) try to remove yourself from it. 

When route 1 is daunting, and route 3 feels unfair or impossible, route 2 feels like the easy answer. And sometimes it is! Temporarily at least, so long as you are safe in the situation. But if you try to accept things as they are and you find you are constantly thinking about it, losing sleep, frustrated, venting, or anything else that doesn’t serve you long term, those are signs that it’s not actually acceptable to you. Leaving, trying to change the situation, or a combination of change and acceptance may be best for you to avoid burnout. 

If trying to change the situation is preferable to leaving, but you need extra support, your HR team or a member of leadership that you trust may be able to help out.

When needing to pass on feedback that goes towards the top I find it best to find an ally who is able to be at those tables. If I'm not comfortable with my manager (which is a whole other thing), is there another leader I'm comfortable with? Present findings to a group, not just those who you aren't familiar or uncomfortable with. It takes courage to share this kind of feedback. You can also connect with a third party within the organization and share feedback this way (Internal Communications, People Team, Operations, etc.). They can also assist with passing on feedback to the top.” - Anonymous

Feedback can be uncomfortable or even scary. Lots of experienced leaders still struggle with it. However, it’s often necessary for a happy and productive work environment, and with practice and thoughtfulness it does get easier. Plus, learning to advocate for your needs is a skill worth building, both in your life and your career.

Best of luck! 

Further reading:

Need help with creating a healthy culture of feedback (or, like, this whole HR thing)? Get team Bright + Early on your side! We offer full fractional support for teams, as well as killer feedback workshops. Give us a shout at to get started.

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