The Right Way to Give Negative Feedback to Your Manager

A four-step framework for giving critical feedback to a superior.

Why Is It So Hard?

Most people have been in a situation where they needed to facilitate a difficult conversation. It can have been with a friend, a partner or a colleague, and I bet it made you nervous and uncomfortable, and you were probably equally worried about the consequences of your talk.

What if you had to give critical feedback to your manager? How comfortable would you be with having to give constructive criticism to your boss? It might seem terrifying but giving feedback when needed is imperative to creating a strong relationship in the workplace.

So how do you do this? The nerves cannot be removed, but we can give you a four-step framework - from Harvard Business Review - to lean upon which will prepare you for the deed.

The Four Step Framework

Step 1 - Question Yourself

First, it is important to determine whether you should proceed - you can do that by asking yourself the following two questions.

Are you making a mountain out of a molehill?

You must ask yourself if this is a reoccurring issue or is it just something that happened one time on a bad day. If it is something that only happened once, you need to figure out if it is worth mentioning. If it is a continuous issue you probably need to bring it up.  

Do the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits? In other words, how important is this to you?

You also need to clarify with yourself if a manager is pushing you to be better because he is invested in your development, in this case, it might deteriorate the quality of your relationship to criticize it. If he is doing something that you deem as unfair that need addressing, then you need to follow through. 


Step 2 - Prepare

The second step is to prepare you - if answering the first two questions has made you proceed. To prepare optimally, there are four steps you can use.

Block time on your manager’s calendar.

Try to have the conversation within a couple of days after the occurrence, so that the event is still fresh in both of your minds. Ask for a meeting with your manager, it could be formulated as such:

“I was hoping we could chat for thirty minutes this week if you have time. I’d love to talk to you about our ‘meeting’. But I feel it would be best to do it one-on-one.”

After having informed your manager about a meeting - either through email or in person, you should book the meeting in your calendars. This is both frightening and liberating, frightening because booking the meeting means it is actually going to happen, but liberating as this decision will impact your career.


Identify what you want to say at the start of the conversation.

The opening statement is important as it sets the tone for the remainder of the conversation. It could sound something like this:

Thank you, Daniel. I really appreciate you taking the time to hear me out. There’s something on my mind from our last team meeting. I wanted to let you know how it made me feel because I think honesty is important for us to maintain a strong relationship. Would that be okay with you?”

This is built up by first - expressing gratitude, second - frame the concern in a constructive way, and thirdly - ask if your manager is okay with proceeding with the conversation.

Getting the manager to say “yes” in the beginning creates a more constructive climate for the conversation.


Pick a feedback method.

There are many ways to give feedback, a good example is the Situation-Behavior-Impact feedback model. When correctly applied it is non-judgmental making it optimal for difficult conversations as these.

1 - Point out when and where a specific behaviour occurred (the situation) to set the context.

2 - Explain in detail what you saw or heard (the specific behaviour).

3 - Describe the impact (how the behaviour made you think and feel).

To exemplify:

 “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research, I noticed that you interrupted me three times and it left me feeling undermined.”

Be specific, otherwise, you are leaving your feedback open for interpretation. Had there instead been used the word ‘frequently’ instead of  ‘three times’ it could sidetrack into a conversation about what frequently really means.


Rehearse it.

When having this type of conversation, you are bound to be nervous. Rehearsing your opening statement will help a little with this and will make it easier to get the discussion started on the right terms. It will also allow you to deliver your message in the clearest possible way.

You can practice your statement on a friend, colleague or a mentor - or all three - and ask them to keep three questions in mind as you do so:

1 - Does my message come across as authentic?

2 - Did you understand the core of my message?

3 - How would you feel after hearing this?

This feedback will help you deliver a clear message in the correct tone and give you an indicator as to how the message might be received.

Step 3 - Have The Conversation

Deliver your opening statement and then wait! Giving your manager time to reflect and respond. This pause might seem like an eternity, especially if you are nervous, but just wait. If your manager responds positively, then the conversation has been a win-win situation, however, this is not always the case. If your manager instead expresses anger or gets defensive, then there are a few ways to soften the blow.

1 - Apologize for the impact (not your behaviour), outline your intention, and ask for clarification.

“I’m sorry this upsets you. I wanted to have a conversation that could help me grow and help us work better together. Could you help me understand why my feedback upsets you?”

2 - Say nothing. Remaining silent often helps ease the tension, allowing the other person to blow off steam. Wait for the other person to finish talking. Then, consider the first suggestion.

3 - Walk away (respectfully). If a manager gets angry, it might be wise to end the meeting, preventing further escalation.

“I’m sorry this upsets you. Perhaps we can talk about this some other time?”

To allow for a cooling-off period before bringing it up again.


Step 4 - End With Thank You

If your manager has taken the time to listen to you and hear your concerns, let him know you’re thankful for his support. Showing gratitude increases well-being and builds stronger relationships at work.

You are now ready to take action. If this is your first time confronting a superior, it might be terrifying, but managers need constructive criticism too in order to keep growing. Giving feedback in this way will occur throughout any career, and it does get easier to do, but you have to start somewhere, and I suggest starting with this framework until you find your own style.

Learn more about how Actee tools can be applied here.

This summary is based on the article by Harvard Business Review building- read it here.

The article is based on CCL’s (center for creative Leadership) timeless SBI model get directly to CCL here  

Create a free subscription here and if you need any assistance, you can find guidance here.

Try A Bubble Game