How to Give Feedback to your Manager

We’ve previously talked a lot about how you can deliver feedback to your team. It’s one of the key parts of being an effective manager, if you’ve not read them already, I’d recommend having a look over:

However, we’ve never really talked about how you can give feedback to your own manager. Unless you’re the CEO of a company or a founder, you’ll have your own boss and they will play an important role in your own development.

Even the most supportive managers will need to hear feedback from you on how they can support you better, so being comfortable with delivering feedback to someone who is “higher up” than you is crucial.

The key here is to keep in mind the fundamental principles of feedback outlined across the links above, for example, these principles:

Principles of Giving Feedback Cheatsheet
Principles of Giving Feedback Cheatsheet

These still form the basis of delivering effective feedback, no matter who is hearing it.

But you then need to layer in some principles which are less tangible, but just as important when it comes to delivering feedback to your boss. These principles won’t necessarily change the feedback itself, but they should influence the way in which you deliver it.

Everything starts with trust

Much like the relationship between you and your team, the relationship between you and your manager needs to be grounded in trust. If there is a lack of trust on any level, then you’ll struggle to deliver feedback and your manager will struggle to receive it. 

Trust can’t simply be created or manufactured out of nothing, so if there is indeed a lack of trust, it’s something that needs to be worked on over time.

For the purposes of this topic though, the key is to be aware of the level of trust that you have and to take it into account when delivering feedback. If trust is low, then you will need to be a bit more aware and considerate of the type of feedback that you deliver and how you deliver it.

For example, delivering feedback that is a little ambiguous or subjective is going to be much harder when trust is low. Whereas delivering feedback that is very clear, timely and is related to very tangible examples, is much easier to deliver. 

Be aware of and own the power dynamic

Even if there is a high degree of trust and even if you have a very supportive manager, there is a power dynamic in place that you need to be aware of. Ultimately, your boss probably has final say and veto power over you and your work. This means that they can’t be compelled to take on board any of your feedback and you’ll need to accept this reality.

The reality, even for the most supportive of managers, is that they can listen to what you say and any feedback that you have, but they can choose to ignore it if they wish – and there is very little you can immediately do about that.

This can be particularly prevalent in larger companies or more corporate environments where there is a clear hierarchy. It could also be particularly challenging if you have a manager who falls onto the power dynamic naturally and enjoys it.

What this means is that you can (and should) deliver feedback, but you need to be prepared for a scenario where it’s either not taken on board at all or only taken on board to a small extent. 

Take into account their responsibilities

Chances are that your manager has a range of responsibilities that extend beyond management of you as an individual and the workload that you are accountable for. For example, they may manage four other people as well and also have their own workload to take care of.

This means that they are balancing a number of responsibilities at any one time and you’re probably not going to be their number one priority at all times.

Of course, they have a responsibility to manage you effectively and to be supportive of you. But when it comes to delivering feedback, you need to be aware that they may well take on board the feedback, but actioning it may not be the next most important thing on their todo list. 

For example, let’s say that you give them feedback that you’d like some improvements made to your personal development plan. They may agree with you because a good development plan is clearly very important. However, they may have two or three other tasks to work on which are both important and urgent, so you may not get an instant response from them – and that’s okay.

I would expect them to manage your expectations here and tell you when you can expect an updated plan, but not everyone will do this. 

Acknowledge the limits of their context and power

Leading on from the above, you’re unlikely to know all of your manager’s responsibilities and the issues that they are currently facing in their role. Further to this, you may not always be aware of the wider context in which decisions are made by your manager and you need to take this into account when delivering your feedback.

For example, a decision may be made that changes how your team works or how you work on your own responsibilities and you may not agree with it. However, it’s been made in the context of the wider business and is beyond the control of your own manager. 

Your manager may well explain this but may not be able to fully explain a decision that’s been made at the company level. You should try to take this into account, particularly if you work at a larger company where your own manager is a few degrees removed from where key decisions are made. 

When it comes to delivering feedback about the change that you don’t agree with, you should remember that they may not have led this change or even been aware of it. So go into the conversation with an open mind and give them the opportunity to fill in gaps in your understanding of what’s happened and who is responsible for the decision that you don’t agree with.

If this article resonated with you, then you may also enjoy this one:

How to manage people who are older or more experienced than you

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