Most employees are afraid of getting fired. As a result, employees are often afraid of the most senior people in organizations, simply because of their titles. The better the title, the scarier people are. And if employees are scared of organizational leaders, they’re not going to be inclined to give those leaders negative feedback. The most senior people in an organization get the least information of anyone.
No one likes to be told that he is wrong. Negative feedback tells the person he did something wrong. But there is more than one way to give feedback. Asking questions can be equally as effective as giving direct feedback.
If you want to give a senior person negative feedback, but you’re afraid of the consequences, manage up by asking more and saying less..
Here are some ways to manage up by asking questions:
Rather than saying, “I disagree, I think you’re wrong, or this is a mistake,” consider managing up by asking questions like:
- We’ve chosen to invest a lot in this software. I wasn’t here when the software was chosen. What’s the history of this initiative?
- What were the criteria for selection?
- How do you think it’s going?
- What are you concerned about?
- What are you satisfied with?
- What else have we tried?
- What are your thoughts about…?
- What if we tried…?
Asking questions gets the person involved in a discussion, during which you can eventually express your point of view. When you ask questions, you say very little, and definitely don’t call the person’s decision-making into question.
Human beings are wired for survival. Receiving negative feedback kicks the need to defend oneself into gear, hence why people become defensive when they receive negative feedback. Negative feedback calls survival into question. If you don’t want people to become defensive, don’t require them to defend themselves. A discussion, during which you ask questions, is much less threatening than overtly disagreeing with someone’s point of view.
Asking questions takes more time and more patience than giving direct feedback. But it also takes less courage, and the quality of your relationship doesn’t have to be as good. You need a pretty good relationship to give direct feedback. If you don’t have that relationship, manage up by asking questions instead of being so direct.
If you do choose to ask questions, watch your tone. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you aren’t really asking a question, you’re giving feedback, which is likely to evoke the defensive response you’re seeking to avoid.
It’s important to be able to express your point-of-view at work. Staying in a job or organization in which you can’t speak up, doesn’t feel great and doesn’t leverage the best of what you have to offer. But if you’re concerned about giving direct feedback, manage up by asking questions. Say less. Ask more.
No matter how much you like and get along with your boss, your boss is not your friend. Nor is your boss your confidant or venting buddy.
Unless your boss follows you around all day, every day, she is not aware of all the things you do at work. And if she does follow you around, she probably needs more to do, which I doubt.
Given that your boss often doesn’t see you work, the only exposure you may have to each other is during one-on-one and group meetings. So be careful how you behave during these meetings.
I’ve made lots of career mistakes . . . once. Here’s a mistake I made before launching Candid Culture. I’m hoping you won’t replicate it.
In my last job, I was lucky enough to have a great boss. He was a good coach and mentor. He supported me, gave me exposure throughout the company, and always had my back. We didn’t cross paths much at work, except during our regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings.
I’m what some might call passionate. I have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. And I can be critical of those who I think don’t do the right things.
I would often share my frustrations with my boss. The head of that department didn’t do this. This person made a bad call. So and so was making my employees’ lives hard. I wasn’t complaining, well I kind of was, but not without a purpose.
One day my boss called me out on my passionate (and at times critical) style. He said that if I was so impassioned during meetings with him, he assumed I was equally vocal in meetings with other people and departments.
This wasn’t the case. I was very careful in how I managed myself with other people in our company. I understood the importance of good business relationships and knew that people work with the people they want to work with and around the people they don’t.
But my boss didn’t get to see any of those interactions. For the most part all he saw was how I interacted with him during our meetings. With no other point of reference he was left to assume that if I vented with him, I did this with other people. If I got a little too soapboxish about an issue with him, I must do the same in other meetings. I didn’t do those things with other people, but he had no way to know that.
My boss and I had a good relationship and I felt comfortable with him, probably too comfortable. I was politically savvy with everyone but him.
Your boss is an appropriate person with whom to express frustration, but manage how you do it. Don’t vent to vent. Every topic you raise should be with the aim of problem solving. Keep things honest but positive. Vent and complain at home, or with someone who doesn’t know the people you work with. Or better yet, spare your friends and family, and take your frustration to the gym, or the shoe department, whatever your preferred form of therapy.
Assuming you have limited exposure to your boss, make the time you have with her count. Put in front of your boss only what you want her to see. I’m not saying to be disingenuous or brush problems under the rug. Speak candidly, but manage yourself with your boss as you would with any internal or external customer.
If you stayed out until two in the morning and you’re dragging the next day, your boss doesn’t need to know that. She will assume you’re not on your game that day and that will be a check mark in the negative category for lacking good judgment and commitment to your job and the company. If you had a bad date, your boss doesn’t need or even want to know. If you think someone you work with is a dolt, ask for help in how to work well with him, and keep your opinion of his acumen to yourself.
Your boss has limited time and exposure to you. Manage yourself by showing him your polished and professional self.