Upward Feedback: How to Give Your Boss Your Honest Opinion

by Sharlyn Lauby | Posted | Communication

Upward Feedback: How to Give Your Boss Your Honest Opinion

When your boss asks the question, “What do you think?” the possibilities of how you can react are endless. You can:

  • Tow the company line, if you know it.
  • Agree with your manager, whether or not you actually do.
  • Share your honest opinion, whatever that might be.

Responding with total honesty to your boss can seem scary at first, even if you have a great relationship with your manager… Especially in cases when you might not agree with the company or your manager.

Now, if your relationship with your boss is one where you can say whatever is on your mind, totally and completely unfiltered, then today’s post might not be for you. But I hope you’ll read on, so you can send it to a colleague in need. Because not everyone has one of those working relationships with their manager – where we don’t have to think about or filter what we say.

How to manage upward feedback

The reality is, we should plan upward feedback carefully. And most of that planning actually happens before we ever get asked the question. Here are five things to consider before responding to a “What do you think?” question:

1. Spend time thinking: It’s not reasonable to believe we will spend our entire careers without ever being asked to give our opinion or feedback. Regardless of your job title, think about those decisions that take place around you and pertain to your work. Those are things that someone might ask you to weigh in on.

2. Ask questions: If you’re asked to provide feedback and don’t feel you have all the information, ask a few questions. It’s perfectly okay to say, “Thanks for asking me. I’d love to share my thoughts. Can I confirm a couple of things first? Just to make sure my assumptions are correct.” It sends the message that having correct information is important to you.

3. Have an opinion: As a HR pro, one of the most frustrating things for me was asking an employee for feedback and receiving the response, “Doesn’t matter,” or “I don’t have an opinion.” Then after a decision was made the employee would complain. My reply? “But you said you didn’t have an opinion!” When asked for your opinion, not responding can limit your chances to provide input later.

4. Consider an alternate point-of-view: As you’re developing your thoughts, consider the objections someone might have to your point-of-view. And be prepared to address them. Let’s say, after sharing your feedback, the boss says they don’t agree for XYZ reason. You can reply, “You know, that thought crossed my mind and here’s the reason I didn’t include it in my feedback.” In addition, if you know that your boss might say they don’t agree, proactively bring it up.

(Hold on, number five is coming later).

Feedback can happen at any time

Providing feedback to your boss can happen at any time. Here’s a story from my early career that reminds me to be ready with feedback.

The company I worked for was rapidly expanding into new markets. As a result, the human resource department was involved in a major recruiting effort. While I was not directly responsible for this recruiting initiative, I knew I could get sucked in, dragged in, volunteered, asked to help at any moment. So I needed to know what was going on at a high level. When people started talking about it, I paid attention.

No surprise, I was asked to participate in a couple of job fairs. My role in the job fair was very small. I was simply conducting interviews. The recruiting team just needed an extra set of hands. But I did see some opportunities for improvement.

After the event, my boss asked me, “What did you think of the job fair?”

Now I could have said:

“Oh, it was great! The recruiting team really worked hard.”

“I was just focused on my role. I don’t really have an opinion of the event.”

Honestly, neither of those statements offered any kind of constructive feedback. It would have sounded like I hadn’t given the situation any thought whatsoever. Or that I wasn’t paying attention. Here’s another option.

“From my vantage point, the recruiting team pulled off a great event. I’m curious. What other recruiting strategies are they using to find candidates? I’ve had a lot of success using employee referral programs. I know we don’t currently have a referral program but it’s pretty easy to implement.”

I complimented the team, acknowledged that I might not have all the information, and offered a suggestion for improvement. Now, my boss might choose not to consider it, which leads me to my last point.

5. Expressing your opinion and fighting for it are two different things: Every time you share your feedback, not everyone will necessarily agree and adopt your point-of-view. That’s okay. It’s perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree. Our roles ask us to do what’s in the best interest of the organization.

In my situation above, my boss actually took my feedback seriously and developed an employee referral program. The recruiting effort was a success – not completely because of the referral program, but it did contribute. And shortly after that feedback session, I received a promotion. My boss told me it was important that employees felt comfortable giving feedback. It was the only way the company would stay on top of their game.

Upward feedback is powerful. Plan your thoughts and use those moments carefully.

Your Turn: What is one circumstance in which you either have given or received helpful upwards feedback?

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