One question that I am asked with great frequency is how to give negative feedback upward, to a boss or other leader in the organization. This is an important question on many levels. Organizational leaders are often bereft of corrective feedback because staff fear the leader’s positional power. If leaders either ignore the negative feedback or worse, retaliate with damaging consequences, the feedback pipeline dries up.

Lacking corrective feedback, leaders continue to manifest less than optimal behavior. Since leaders cast a big shadow, the negative behavior is then seen as acceptable, even encouraged, and then adopted by others down the food chain. I’ve witnessed the cascading of bad behavior many times: a CEO shows impatience with others, rudely interrupts conversations, uses profanity, is sarcastic or condescending in meetings. If this behavior has gone on for some time unchecked, others adopt it as a way of doing business. Over time, the organization is known for its culture of disrespect and negativity.

The best way to communicate negative feedback upward is to use much the same process one would use to correct anyone in the organization.

  1. Start by finding a good time and place. If the leader is rushed or under stress, wait until a more relaxed and open time to talk.
  2. Provide the feedback by citing a single, specific behavior in a specific context. A big error is to stockpile issues then try to communicate them all at once. The leader will feel attacked and shut down.
  3. Describe the specific impact the behavior had on yourself or others.
  4. If appropriate suggest alternate behavior that might have been used.
  5. Share your contribution to the negative behavior and your commitment to change. By shouldering some of the blame for the negative situation, you decrease the odds of denial from the leader.
  6. Provide follow up. If the leader does not display the negative behavior at the next meeting, discretely thank him or her for the change.

Here is how the conversation would look using the example I provided earlier:

Frank, in yesterdays’ planning meeting you interrupted my presentation 3 times to correct information in my report. (specific behavior and content) Those interruptions made me so nervous I failed to mention some key points. Basically, I rushed through the talk because I was concerned that there would be other issues you would bring up. I had to follow up later with emails with information I should have covered in the meeting (impact) I realize that I should have briefed you before the meeting and will do so in the future to avoid this happening. If you have issues with my work in future meetings, could you stop the meeting so we can talk through them offline? (alternative behavior)

I find that the biggest persuader for a leader to accept feedback and change is to cite specific negative business impact of their behavior. If you can demonstrate that their behavior is causing increased workload, increased error, or any other business metric that matters to them, they will change. Without a clear negative impact, denial sets in and nothing changes.

Leaders without solid feedback are like driving a car without headlights. Driving down the road without headlights works great on a clear, bright day but when things get murky, the opportunity for a crash increases. Things frequently get murky in our business climates today. People need to feel safe to shout “curve in the road ahead” if a leader’s behavior is hurting business results.