Providing Negative Feedback to Your Boss

by Krishna on April 1, 2009

Boss_tweed A friend, reading my last post about managers providing feedback to employees, asked about the reverse situation: how employees could provide feedback to managers. A counter-question is why is the question being asked at all. After all, if a person could have given a particular piece of feedback to a manager, he would have already done so and not worried about how to give it.

So the situation is that the employee does not know how the manager would receive the advice. Or, he thinks or knows that the manager would receive it in the wrong way. Perhaps, providing the feedback could lead to retaliation or retribution in some active or passive form.

My position, therefore, is if there are any risks associated with providing the feedback and if you are uncomfortable with facing the downsides of that risk, then don’t do it. As in everything you do, if the cost-benefit analysis does not work into your favor, then let it go.

Now, the next counter-question is: why did you want to give the feedback in the first place? If you are not personally benefiting in any way, the solution becomes even more of a slam dunk. There is no point in helping someone who is in the habit of beating down people who want to help them. It is just not worth it.

But what if the manager’s fault is something that affects your work? Maybe you are being less productive because of the manager’s antics. There is no single correct way to address this, but here are a few possible courses of action:

  1. Try to understand if there is a misunderstanding between yours and the manager’s points of view.
  2. Buy more time from the manager to do your work. This can reduce pressure and reduce tensions between the two of you.
  3. Accept the manager’s faults and try to work around them. If they cannot change their ways, maybe you can ignore them and try a different approach.
  4. Maybe some problems are not worth correcting if they are only minor irritants. Ignore them if you can.
  5. Gain the manager’s confidence and trust and thus be in a position where you can talk to them frankly.

Sometimes, of course, nothing works especially if your boss is an incorrigible jerk. There is always an option of changing your boss by leaving to a different company or within the same company to a different department. Practically, changing jobs may not be feasible presently for various reasons (economy, family, etc.), but it is something that should not be discounted.


Kalpesh April 2, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Replace manager with programmer & vice versa in your post above and it still is the same story.

I guess you are trying to put manager above developer (mgr is up the ladder in role. but skills/experience to do the work is a different thing).

Manager's work as they say should be to remove the obstacles so that team can work better
e.g. one of my manager/mentor made tea for all of us when we were running late on a project & working more hours.

The idea is that people get feeling when someone else is being a jerk, not when they are acting as one. Manager are given a role so they can become a jerk of better category.

In short, nobody is obliged to each other. People are obliged to the project/client/goals of the project and not to each other.

Having to evaluate each other on personal viewpoint is stupidity.

Kalpesh April 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm

And like all relationships, expectations are not defined (from a personal point of view) and it becomes a quarrel at some point.

e.g. I have seen married people quarreling and saying "you should have done this…." or "you dont listen to me blah blah" at a later point without setting the expectation in the beginning.

Again the idea is not to be obedient to each other, but to be reasonable & working towards common good.

Krish April 3, 2009 at 9:00 am

The manager vs. employee thing is related to the power dynamics in the organization. If A has the ability to fire B, Person A has a greater leeway of what to tell B than vice versa. Power changes everything. So a manager has more freedom to tell the employee to change some behavior than the employee can tell the manager.

In an idealistic world, everyone should be working towards the project goals. In the real world, there are many more moving parts (personal needs, group dynamics, politics, etc.) that influence people’s behavior. From an employee’s standpoint, he cannot control the manager’s behavior.

So the question is: Without any power to control, how can the employee influence the manager? And in some situations, the question is: should the employee even attempt to do that if there is a personal risk?

Kalpesh April 3, 2009 at 11:20 pm

The quality of a leader (manager?) is such that he/she is open to criticism & willing to learn from mistake.

We are so messed up that we worry about politics & politics is going to be there (and one should become better at throwing the bad ones out rather than the opposite).

Krish April 6, 2009 at 9:00 am

I agree with you if you are the leader or manager. Question is what do you do if you are not the leader and do not have any power?

Office politics is a reality in most places. It is good to be idealistic, but you have to understand how to manage change.

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