Giving Feedback to the Boss—and Receiving it Graciously

August 20, 2021 Ken Blanchard

Feedback. Given correctly, feedback can be a helpful, productive part of any successful business relationship. But for many people it can conjure up negative feelings. Most people see feedback as being criticized, second-guessed, or reprimanded. And as hard as it is to give feedback to a peer or direct report, it’s even more challenging to give feedback to your boss—even when you know it would helpful for them to hear what you have to say.

How to Give Feedback to the Boss

Let me give you an example. Years ago, when I was teaching a few odd courses at a business school, a new dean arrived. The dean had written a lot about participative management—an early form of servant leadership—but he wasn’t practicing it. He was wheeling and dealing and making all kinds of top-down decisions with no participation from the faculty. A few faculty leaders decided individually to confront him about his inconsistent behavior. The problem? Not one of them had actually connected with this man prior to confronting him. He essentially threw each of them out of his office in turn.

This is a common mistake when people set out to give feedback to upper management: they forget to connect before they confront.  In other words, they haven’t built a relationship with their leader prior to sharing their feedback. When attempting to influence up the hierarchy, it’s important to remember that you have no position power—only personal power, at best. So when you give a leader feedback before you have a connection with them, I don’t care how gently you give it; chances are it won’t be well received.

In my case, I agreed with the other faculty members and was also concerned about the dean’s decision-making style. But I realized I had to develop some kind of a relationship with him before I had any chance of getting through to him with my feedback.

Building a relationship with someone is like putting money in the bank. No matter how good you are at delivering feedback, when you do it, it draws something from your interpersonal bank account with that person. So you’d better have some good experiences in your account to balance things out. I decided since I didn’t have any position power with the dean, I needed to build up my bank account before talking with him about the negative impact his style was having.

One day when I saw him in the hallway, I commented on how much I admired his writing skills. (This was a fact.) Then I said, “I’m working on a paper I hope to get published in a good journal. With your writing experience, would you have time to meet with me? I’d like to share my latest draft with you and get your feedback.”

The dean responded immediately: “I’d love to meet with you.”

When we met, the dean had all kinds of helpful feedback for me. Later, at the end of a follow-up meeting, he casually said, “Ken, how do you think we should deal with some of the jerks in this school?” The key word I picked up on was “we.” Now I knew I had some money in my interpersonal bank account with the dean—personal power. So I felt free to talk to him about how a change in his decision-making style might help. And, feeling comfortable with me now, he was able to listen without getting defensive.

Make It Easy for Others to Give You Feedback

Are you in a position of leadership?  Do you get feedback from your people? Giving feedback to the boss doesn’t come naturally to most people. They may fear being the messenger who bears bad news, so they may hesitate to be candid. But don’t forget the words of my colleague Rick Tate: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!”

Make yourself approachable and easy to connect with. Let them know you really want to hear what they have to say and you won’t get defensive. When receiving feedback, remember that your people are giving you a gift. Make sure the first thing you say is “Thank you.” Then follow up with “This is so helpful. Is there anything else you think I should know?”

In my experience, once you open the door for feedback from your people, you will learn many valuable nuggets of truth you can use to improve your leadership style.

Giving and receiving feedback without judgment—whether up or down the hierarchy—is a best practice for any leader who strives to achieve both great relationships and great results.

About the Author

Ken Blanchard

Ken Blanchard is cofounder and Chief Spiritual Officer of The Ken Blanchard Companies. Best known as the coauthor of The One Minute Manager, as well as 65 other books with combined sales totaling more than 21 million copies.

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