It can be challenging to deliver negative feedback, especially to someone in a position of authority—but there are several steps you can take to prepare and deliver a critique to your superiors at work, Tijs Besieux writes for the Harvard Business Review.
Besieux is a senior expert on behavioral change at &samhoud, founder of Leadership Footprint, and visiting professor at IÉSEG School of Management.
1. Decide whether, and how, to give the feedback
Before you provide negative feedback, particularly to someone in a position of authority over you, make sure "the situation warrants a conversation," Besieux recommends. If it's a one-time lapse, then let it pass—but if it's a repeated behavior, then you may need to act, he writes.
In addition, assess whether giving negative feedback directly will "deteriorate the quality of your relationship" with your manager. One way to determine this, Besieux writes, is to look at how your manager responds to feedback from other direct reports, or "test the waters" by providing neutral or positive feedback to them yourself to see how they respond.
If you determine that direct feedback isn't "the best method," he writes, "think about other feedback channels, like anonymized employee surveys."
2. Prepare to deliver your feedback
If you decide that providing direct feedback is your best route, Besieux writes that you should take four steps to prepare:
- Schedule a one-on-one meeting with your manager: Ideally, reserve time within a day or two of the precipitating event, Besieux writes, and reference in your meeting invitation the reason why you are reaching out, such as by saying, "I'd love to talk to you about our last team meeting."
- Identify at the start of your conversation what you want to discuss: For example, express your gratitude for the support your manager has offered so far in your career, then ask if your manager would be OK with you sharing some feedback. "This is important," Besieux writes, "because it will set the tone for the rest of the conversation."
- Select your feedback method: While there are several ways to deliver feedback, Besieux recommends the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) approach, in which you describe where and when the behavior occurred (for example, during a presentation), detail the specific behavior (such as that the manager interrupted you), and then discuss the impact that behavior had on you (such as that it left you feeling ignored or undermined). Make sure this summary is concise and polite.
- Rehearse your delivery: Turn to a trusted colleague, a friend, or a mentor to practice your delivery, Besieux writes. Giving negative feedback can be nerve-wracking, and a rehearsal will help "calm those nerves and deliver your message in the clearest possible way."
3. Have the feedback conversation
"Now that you've identified what you want to say and how you want to say it, you're ready to have that meeting," Besieux writes. Be sure to pause after delivering your feedback so your manager can respond. "Waiting even a few seconds may feel like an eternity, but be patient," Besieux writes. "The last thing you want to do is take the stage when it's their turn to talk."
Ideally, your manager will respond positively, but Besieux acknowledges that this doesn't always happen. He writes that if you are met "with anger or defensiveness," you might try to soften the blow by apologizing for the impact of your message and gently asking your manager why your message was so upsetting, giving your manager a moment to blow off some steam before resuming conversation.
Alternatively, if your manager gets angry, you might respectfully draw the conversation to a close and let your manager know you'll touch base later.
4. Express gratitude
"If your manager has taken the time to listen to you and hear your concerns, let them know you’re thankful for their support," Besieux writes.
Ultimately, although giving feedback—particularly to your manager—may feel "daunting," Besieux writes, it's a critical component of a healthy manager-employee relationship and the overall team environment. "You won't regret addressing important issues if you do it in a thoughtful way," he writes (Besieux, Harvard Business Review, 12/3/20).