Whether you are dealing with a supervisor who interrupts you, criticizes you in front of others, talks down to you, or something else, giving negative feedback to the person you report to is rarely easy.
So what should you do?
Step 1: Question yourself.
Start by asking yourself two questions.
1) Are you making a mountain out of a molehill?
Before anything else, spend some time thinking about whether or not the situation warrants a conversation. If your manager acted out one time on a bad day, you could probably let it pass. But if you notice this behaviour repeatedly, you might need to bring it up.
2) Do the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits? In other words, how important is this to you?
If your manager is someone who has shown that they are invested in your development and pushes you to perform better, consider whether giving them this feedback will deteriorate the quality of your relationship.
Will they appreciate it or get defensive and think you do not want their help?
One way to gauge this is to observe how your manager responds to feedback from other subordinates. Ask your peers to see if they can provide you with some insight, or test the waters by giving neutral or positive feedback to your manager, paying attention to their response.
If you find that reaching out directly is not the best method, think about other feedback channels, like anonymized employee surveys.
Step 2: Prepare.
If you have answered these questions, and decided to move forward with a direct conversation, it’s time to be proactive. Here are four things you need to do to prepare.
1) Block time on your manager’s calendar.
Try to have the conversation within a day or two of the event’s occurrence so that it is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Let your manager know (in person or via email) that you want to meet with them briefly and be clear on what it is about.
You might say something like, “I was hoping we could chat for thirty minutes this week if you have time. I would love to talk to you about our last team meeting. But I feel it would be best to do it one-on-one.”
Send an email invitation to block time on their calendar the day you want to chat. In the morning or early afternoon is best. There is nothing more stressful than waiting to have a difficult conversation for five hours. Make sure the invite has a clear label to remind your manager of what you’ll be discussing. “Feedback on our Thursday team meeting,” for instance, is clearer than something ambiguous like “Quick catch up.”
2) Identify what you want to say at the start of the conversation.
This is important because it will set the tone for the rest of the conversation.
“Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to hear me out. There’s something on my mind from our last team meeting. I wanted to let you know how it made me feel because I think honesty is important for us to maintain a strong relationship. Would that be okay with you?”
Notice the structure of the words:
- It starts by expressing gratitude.
- It frames the concern in a constructive way.
- It explicitly asks if the manager was okay with having the conversation — a method known as “proceed by agreement.”
We know from negotiation theory that getting people to say “yes” a few times at the beginning of a conversation creates a more constructive climate. When you don’t explicitly ask someone to agree on something, it’s easier for them to opt out or change the topic later on.
3) Pick a feedback method.
While there are many ways to give feedback, one option is to experiment with the Situation-Behaviour-Impact (SBI) feedback model — a no-nonsense, three-step model that sets the stage for a two-way dialogue.
When correctly applied, SBI is entirely non-judgmental, making it a great tool for difficult conversations. If you are specific and avoid generalizations, your feedback is more likely to be heard and reflected upon rather than rejected.
This is how each step in the SBI model translates:
- Point out when and where a specific behaviour occurred (the situation) to set the context: “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research…”
- Explain in detail what you saw or heard (the specific behaviour): “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research, I noticed that you interrupted me three times…”
- Describe the impact (how the behaviour made you think and feel): “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research, I noticed that you interrupted me three times and it left me feeling undermined.”
Remember to be precise with your words. If you choose a vague word like “frequently” instead of “three times,” for example, it will be leaving the feedback open to interpretation, potentially resulting in an unwanted discussion about what “frequently” really means.
4) Rehearse it.
Although this model may seem “short and sweet,” it’s harder to stick to than you might think — especially if you are nervous. And if you have never had this kind of conversation before, know that feeling nervous is natural.
Rehearsing what you are going to say ahead of time will help you calm those nerves and deliver your message in the clearest possible way.
There are three people who will come in handy during this step: a friend, a trusted colleague, or a mentor. Practice delivering your message to one — or all three — of them. When you rehearse, ask the other person these questions:
- Does my message come across as authentic?
- Did you understand the core of my message?
- How would you feel after hearing this?
Similarly, rehearsing your message will allow you to identify exactly when you want to iterate your point and when you want to remain silent and invite engagement from your manager.
Step 3: Have the conversation.
Now that you have identified what you want to say and how you want to say it, you’re ready to have that meeting. Remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes reality may differ from your practice sessions.
That said, even with a ton of practice, you may feel anxious if this is the first time you are confronting someone at work. The big leap is in delivering the message.
Once you have delivered your core message, take a pause. Give your manager sufficient time to reflect and respond. Waiting even a few seconds may feel like an eternity, but be patient. The last thing you want to do is take the stage when it’s their turn to talk.
If you are met with anger or defensiveness instead of compassion, there are a few ways you can soften the blow:
- Apologize for the impact (not your behaviour), outline your intention, and ask for clarification. “I’m sorry this upsets you. I wanted to have a conversation that could help me grow and help us work better together. Could you help me understand why my feedback upsets you?”
- Say nothing. Remaining silent often helps ease the tension, allowing the other person to blow off steam. Wait for the other person to finish talking. Then, consider suggestion one.
- Walk away (respectfully). You can say, “I’m sorry this upsets you. Perhaps we can talk about this some other time?” to allow for a cooling-off period before he brought it up again (that is, if the behaviour persisted).
Step 4: End with a thank you.
If your manager has taken the time to listen to you and hear your concerns, let them know you are thankful for their support. Showing gratitude increases well-being and builds stronger relationships at work.
You might end the conversation with, “Thank you for taking the time to listen to me. It feels great to see how committed you are to helping me grow. It makes me feel proud to be a part of this team and to work under you.”
In the early stages of your career, giving feedback — especially to your manager — may seem like a daunting task. But it’s so important. The relationship between managers and employees is not just a strong predictor for team performance, it has a great impact on your own growth and development. Use the SBI model to guide your efforts. You will not regret addressing important issues if you do it in a thoughtful way.