Pro Tips: How to Give Negative Upward Feedback (With Examples)
Negative feedback—it’s sometimes necessary. If possible, it’s probably a good idea to share that feedback with the person who could grow from it. But what happens when that person is positioned above you on the organizational chart? Do you keep quiet, or should you share the constructive criticism you have?
That depends, says Ethan Dunham, who works with both teams and executives as a coach for G360 Surveys.
“A lot of people think constructive feedback can’t flow both ways, because of the power dynamic that exists between a subordinate and their boss,” he says. “They think, ‘This person signs my checks, so I have to keep quiet on this issue.’”
But that’s usually not the case—especially when a couple of things are true about the relationship and the organization’s climate. There must be trust and psychological safety, he says.
Do you feel like you have both of those things? That’s a good sign, but it’s not permission to barge into your boss’ office and unleash your grievances. How to give negative upward feedback effectively involves a few more steps, including the ones outlined below.
Get in the Right Mindset
Are you fuming mad at a joke your boss cracked at the team meeting this morning? Attempt to give her negative upward feedback now and you might accidentally give her a piece of your mind instead.
“The right time to give feedback might be different for everyone,” Ethan says. “Some people need a ton of time to cool off and others don’t. It really depends on whether the emotionality of your experience will impede your ability to deliver feedback in a way that they can hear.”
Get Guidance (If You’re Having Trouble Getting in the Right Mindset)
If you’re feeling uncertain about how to deliver negative upward feedback or even if you should bring up whatever it is that’s bothering you, Ethan suggests consulting with someone you trust. This could be a spouse, a roommate or a professional mentor (bonus points if they’re at the same organization).
“If they have more experience with the culture than you do, you might ask them how they’d get the message across,” he says.
Get Their Permission
Nobody likes to be caught off guard, and that’s especially true when they’re receiving negative feedback. Whenever you give upward negative feedback, you should ask permission to do so. This can be as simple as saying:
- “May I share some feedback with you?”
- “I have some feedback that I’d like to discuss with you, is that alright?”
- “Is now a good time to share some feedback with you?”
- “I have been working hard to develop myself and one of the areas I need to work on is giving critical feedback. Would it be OK if I practiced this skill in our meeting today?”
If they say no, and they might, simply ask to schedule some time to speak. It’s not a bad sign that now is a bad time.
It’s All in the Delivery
There can be a fine line between bosses behaving badly and humans behaving, well, like humans. Sometimes they don’t mean to drop the ball. Sometimes they don’t realize how their actions affect their team members. Keep this top of mind as you deliver your feedback. “Assumption of good will is key,” Ethan says. “You should give the other person an opportunity to do well or do right,” Ethan says.
Say this: “We’ve been talking for the last few months about my desire for an opportunity for a promotion. I’m trying to be patient, but I’m getting a little antsy. In our meeting today, could we revisit the topic and make sure I am still on track?”
Not this: “You said I would have a promotion by the end of the year. It’s December 12 and I haven’t heard about it yet!”
Say this: “At the Monday meeting, when you said X, I think it was meant as a joke because a lot of people laughed, but it hurt my feelings.”
Not this: “Hey, I can’t believe what you said about me in the meeting this morning.”
“Go tough on the problems and easy on the people,” Ethan says. “If you go in with that spirit, it will be a much more fruitful feedback experience.”