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The relationship you develop with your boss is what impacts your professional satisfaction (and your performance!) most.
At the same time, more than three out of four employees in the US report that their direct supervisor is the worst and most stressful part of their job.
The combination of these stats is striking. And how’s that even possible?
Is it that only horrible people get to managerial positions? Or maybe all employees tend to take instinctive dislike for their supervisors?
Well. Perhaps there’s another answer. Very few people know how to give productive, thoughtful feedback to their bosses. And proper feedback is the key thing to developing good, respectful relationships with your managers.
Think it’s impossible?
Maybe it’s not about what’s wrong with them. Maybe it’s about you. Read on and find out!
A story of one non-nonsense boss
Meet Annie Gala who currently owns Guilty Goose Productions, an NYC-based digital marketing agency.
Today, Annie herself is a supervisor of the whole team. But to get there, she had to learn many a lesson on how to handle a tough boss.
Our story begins in 2008, right after the economic crash.
Annie is living with her parents in the Westchester County, commuting to back-to-back interviews in NYC.
She’s having a final interview for the position of an Executive Personal Assistant to the President of a major publishing house, Macmillan.
The President, Brian, shows up over an hour late.
“Follow me, we’ll do this as we walk,” he says.
As Annie answers the questions, she’s already furious he made her wait for so long and never even cared to mutter an apology.
Brian: "Say I'm in LA, I need to get to a place an hour away, I'm running 15 minutes late."
Annie: "I would have called you an hour before, 30 minutes before, and then 15 minutes before you needed to leave to make sure that wasn't the case."
“Okay but let's say it was the case. What if I’d been unreachable?”
"I would have made sure that wasn’t the case."
"What if it didn't matter—how would you get me there on time?"
[SIGHS ALOUD] “I'd charter a helicopter and have another admin on site to get you into the aircraft while I’m on the phone with you.”
This interview set the tone for their whole professional relationship to come.
Oh God, Brian already seems like a nightmare boss to work for, you might think.
But hey, it’s just a façade. Managers like to create an aura of unreachability. But they all care more than you think.
Here’s an example to show you what I mean.
In the late 2000s, Brian didn’t see much value in the changing landscape of digital publishing.
Google Books, Twitter? To him, these were just trifles, not worth anyone’s time.
But not to Annie.
When she wasn’t dealing with her everyday assignments, she would scroll through Twitter and create summaries of emerging digital content platforms.
“One time, we got into a huge argument about where my priorities were,” Annie recalls.
“Brian was agitated that I was spending my time on Twitter and tapping into these author and reader communities—he felt like I wasn't putting the company and the legacy of our publishing house first. But I told Brian that if we were going to ‘fight’ these advancements, we needed to understand them.”
Almost immediately after their argument, Brian went to a strategy meeting with the heads of several other publishing houses. When he came back, he asked Annie to his office.
He closed the door.
And he apologized.
“I was wrong. What you did helped me today. I want you to continue to monitor these platforms and create a weekly report for me. I'll need you to make me an expert.”
Remember—you’re in the same boat
There’s one critical lesson to be learned from Annie.
Proper feedback given to your boss should always be centered around your common goal—the success of the whole enterprise.
“The chops to back up your feedback”—that’s the gist of it.
And it’s what Ketan Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of Mettl, an HR technology company points out as well.
He says that every time you deliver feedback to your supervisor, you should base it on three parameters:
- Their key behaviors.
- Data-backed reasons for your disagreement.
- The impact of the change you suggest.
As was the case with Annie:
Her boss’ key behavior: negligence of contemporary trends in digital publishing.
Data-backed reasons for disagreement: rapid emergence of influential online reader and author communities.
The impact: their company would build an important audience and not lose it to more modern competitors.
“With this approach, the risk of offending the other person is greatly reduced,” says Ketan.
At the same time, remember that the feedback you give doesn’t have to be related strictly to business performance only.
You can mention more personal matters
If you know the right way to do it.
Here’s another story to illustrate that.
Nate, the Marketing Manager of Maple Holistics, has received one piece of feedback that changed him as a manager forever.
“After one of our weekly meetings, a new recruit to our marketing team stayed behind. I turn to her, and she asks if she can speak freely,” Nate recalls.
“I give her the go-ahead and she tells me, very plainly, that I was arrogant during the brainstorming session. Not towards her, but another co-worker.”
“Her honesty and confidence were so refreshing. And she gave the feedback exactly right: she was careful about it, she asked permission, she did it privately, and she didn’t go into a whole monologue. She said her piece in a sentence and was done with it.”
As Nate claims, this single conversation helped him take steps to become the kind of manager others want to work under and be around.
By providing feedback in an honest and professional manner, this employee changed the relationship Nate had not only with her, but with the whole team.
And, believe me, it’s something you’re capable of as well.
But keep one thing in mind...
The only effective feedback is personal—not anonymous
Imagine that Nate, instead of having had an honest talk with his employee, received an anonymous handwritten note reading “YOU’RE RUDE.”
Would it have made any impact?
Well, no, but who would even think of delivering feedback in this way?
Millions of people do it every day. The only difference is that the notes are electronic.
During my research for this article, I’ve noticed something worrisome—
Trending, there are dozens of business apps for exchanging anonymous feedback within a company.
And anonymous feedback will never truly make your boss feel accountable to anyone.
Just imagine: Someone says I’m micromanaging—I’m not! Lazy troll!
John Doe says I’m micromanaging—Why does he think so? He did mention that thing last week…
But, since the proliferation of anonymous feedback software, are we bound to remain in a vicious circle of non-productive feedback?
I’ve reached out to Officevibe, an employee engagement tool we use at Zety, to find out.
Officevibe promotes non-anonymous feedback while giving every employee the option to remain anonymous.
I know. Giving open feedback to a manager is tough, no matter who you are.
To help ease the process, Justin shared a couple of crucial things to remember.
Start by delivering feedback privately and with respect.
One of the worst things you can do is make your supervisor feel undermined in front of the rest of your team. To that end, avoid voicing the matter to team members ahead of time and take your feedback directly to the person it concerns—they’ll appreciate it.
Stay on point and be as specific as possible.
Focus your feedback more on the issue or problem that was created, and less on your supervisor’s personality to help it avoid feeling like an attack.
Consider if your boss is likely to receive feedback well in the first place.
Then make the judgement call.
If you’re finding it too hard to deliver feedback openly, you can start with anonymous notes and see how your boss responds to them. The better they ultimately get at responding to feedback, the more comfortable people will be providing it.
So—What do you think?
What’s the hardest part of giving feedback to your boss? Do you have any stories on delivering tough feedback you’d like to share? Are there any aspects of internal communication you’d like to chat about?
Give me a shout in the comments! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.