Dallin Nelson

We’re used to seeing managers address their employees when something’s wrong, but the reverse is equally important. Just like anybody else, managers don’t always know something is wrong unless it’s brought to their attention—sometimes by their own team members.

Right away, there’s an obvious power imbalance here. Unlike managers, team members who offer criticisms to their boss—even in a fair and respectful manner—expose themselves to potential consequences that, should their boss respond badly, could hurt their career.

It’s easy to see why people suffer in silence rather than bring critical feedback to their boss, but the truth is that walking on eggshells is bad for everyone. Production suffers when employees don’t communicate. Creative teams get less creative. Employee engagement suffers. Customers don’t get answers to their questions. Things break down.

Communication barriers are detrimental to progress, which is why fast-moving companies foster a feedback culture where anyone can share thoughts and opinions with anyone else. Chains of command still exist to keep operations efficient, but problems are to be addressed and resolved quickly, regardless of who brings attention to them.

In short, problem-solving company cultures that practice open communication see higher employee performance.

Easier said than done, of course. Providing feedback takes guts when someone is in the wrong, especially if that someone is your boss. There’s an art to it, though—the skill of framing criticism in such a way that it’s not only taken to heart, but the other person wants to solve the problem as much as you do.

Know your end goal

Giving feedback to a manager doesn’t have to be intimidating. As long as your goal is to make things better, a good manager should see the value in your comments and respond in kind.

Deliver feedback carefully and in a way that prioritizes the flow of business and team performance. For example, if a manager isn’t providing enough basic information to do a task properly, let them know that the task will take longer to get done correctly. Sure, you’re also frustrated about having to figure it all out on your own, but the pertinent issue is how it harms the flow of business.

Focusing on principles like operational efficiency will be your best approach when bringing negative feedback to your boss.

An end goal is also important. It’s not that helpful to tell someone they’re messing up; they also need to know how to do better. Is criticism valid without a helpful solution? Sure, but unless your manager is in a good mood, it’s probably not the best way to effect change.

Bring up the constructive feedback

Getting a conversation going with your manager is the first step to solving a problem. Whether that means a one-on-one meeting or just a passing comment will depend on your personality. Casually bringing up a problem can help to hide how much time you’ve spent thinking about it, possibly preserving your working relationship with your manager.

There are a few ways to deliver feedback:

  • The feedback sandwich. Compliment, feedback, compliment. It’s an elegant approach that raises an issue and moves on quickly so that conversations get started without too much discomfort.

  • SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact). Better for formal settings where change is needed, the SBI lays out criticism in its context. “Here’s what was going on, here’s what you did, and here’s what happened as a result.” It’s easy to sound forceful and domineering with the SBI model, so try to be patient and deliberate.

  • “I” statements. If your manager is a reasonable person, coming right out with it gets a conversation going without any formalities. The power in an “I” statement comes from its directness and vulnerability. For example, “I feel like I’m being kept out of the loop on projects,” raises a problem without pinning it on the manager. It’s also open, helping to avoid defensiveness.

  • Provocative questions. Questions can direct a conversation without feeling forceful. “Do you think everyone on the team is being treated fairly?” could give your manager a chance to weigh in on an issue without feeling judged about how well they handle it.

It isn’t always easy to wrangle your manager into a meeting. You may have to give feedback in informal settings, but it’s still a good way to initiate a conversation. And that’s when the dance really begins.

Listen carefully

Roger Fisher’s Getting to Yes is a great read about how to negotiate touchy subjects without turning adversarial or becoming overly frustrated. Fisher’s position is that negotiation must focus strictly on the issue at hand, not one’s relationship to the issue.

According to Fisher, things that hurt and slow down negotiation include:

  • Not speaking in a direct and clear manner. It’s unproductive to talk around an issue while expecting others to pick up on hints. Be direct and forthcoming so problems get solved and your manager understands exactly what you’re getting at.

  • Listening only to rebut the other party’s statements. Be patient and try to really understand the other person’s point of view. Even if you disagree, save it for after you’ve heard everything they have to say.

  • Misunderstanding or misinterpreting the other party’s position. Some people are so concerned with being right that they invent a position just so they can beat it. Oversimplifying someone’s opinion to where it looks overtly bad (known as straw manning) is irritating to deal with and serves no helpful purpose.

Along with the above communication skills, Fisher touches on Carl Rogers’ reflective listening technique, a subset of active listening techniques. He uses the example of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979.

Basically, the story goes that both countries were so entrenched in their views that neither was willing to compromise. That’s when they decided to try something new: listen to the other party’s priorities and repeat them back to ensure clarity. Apparently it worked. Once the statesmen proved they were truly listening to each other, something broke down that made negotiation possible.

Clarifying questions start with phrases like:

  • “What I’m hearing is…”

  • “It sounds like…”

  • “If I understand you correctly…”

Active listening is a feedback tool that helps to avoid misunderstanding and create a pathway to agreements and solutions.

Keep records before & after

It’s never a bad idea to have receipts, especially if your feedback session involves something serious. Screenshots of Slack messages that didn’t sit well with you can come in handy if your side of the story is ever contested. In general, the more information you have to make your case, the harder it is for your manager to dismiss it.

Keeping records isn’t an act of aggression, it’s just a way to make sure you’re covered in case your claims are called into question. It can happen even among friends.

“You never returned the DVD you borrowed from me.”
“I never borrowed your DVD.”
“Yes, you did. On January 3rd, I loaned you my gold-plated copy of Road House.”

It feels a little ridiculous, but just having dates tied to events can validate suspicions as actual events that happened in time—not just in your imagination. Continue keeping records after your conversation, too. You never know when they’ll come in handy for a follow-up.

Ask more questions

They call Socrates a genius for a reason: He seemed to steer conversations without using affirmative statements. Were his questions a little pedantic sometimes? Maybe, but he knew constructive ways to get people thinking.

Learning to ask good questions takes practice. “How”, “why”, and “what” are good openers for questions that elicit answers beyond a simple yes/no response. They also show a genuine interest in the conversation.

Conversations with a manager can benefit from good questions. They create chances for valuable insight and perspective without challenging anyone’s point of view. It’s important to consider your tone when asking tough questions. Some questions just sound bad, whether out of arrogance and condescension or because they come off as stubborn.

When asking questions, remember to:

  • Be polite

  • Acknowledge others’ expertise

  • Be open to new perspectives

  • Avoid overstating your knowledge or making grand claims

  • Consider your tone

  • Accept honest feedback

The more respectful your questions come across, the more productive your conversation will be.

Negative feedback examples

With that in mind, let’s brainstorm some specific situations you might encounter and explore templates for phrasing performance feedback.

Lack of communication

Your coworkers constantly feel caught off guard due to being kept out of the loop. You need your manager to communicate more frequently, but not to the point that communication becomes a huge job in itself.

Consider saying, “I’ve noticed a lack of communication about certain projects. It would be helpful to have regular updates to stay informed, but I realize you have a lot on your plate. Is there any way I could help out with that?”


It’s hard to get any work done (let alone professional development) due to an excessive amount of oversight getting in the way. Your team is stressed out and so is your boss. It’s time to give up a little control and trust teamwork.

Try, “I feel a little constrained by the level of oversight on tasks. I think more autonomy could lead to better results. Does that seem like something worth considering?”

Inconsistent decision-making

Your boss doesn’t follow a consistent process when arriving at conclusions, leaving team members confused and worried that they don’t understand where priorities lie. You need to know what can be expected.

Try, “I’ve observed some variations in decision-making, and I think it would be helpful to understand the criteria or process you use.”

You’ll probably be on the hook to provide specific examples here, so have one ready.

Ignoring employee feedback

It feels like your boss never listens to any team members’ ideas. You feel disconnected and detached from the team and from any input on decisions.

Try, “I’ve noticed that some team members feel their input isn’t being considered. Do you think there’s room to encourage more open discussions and foster a more collaborative environment?”

Failure to provide effective feedback

As workplace training is on the wane, this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. You need to know what’s expected of you, but your boss just doesn’t make time to offer constructive criticism.

Try, “I think regular feedback would be beneficial for my professional growth. Do you think we could establish a feedback process to periodically discuss my performance? Maybe set up a performance review check-in?”

Unrealistic expectations

There’s always more to do, and it needs to be done now. The expectations are unrealistic, and it’s demoralizing. But how can you phrase it without sounding weak, lazy, or unreliable?

Try, “I feel like we’ve been giving 100 percent but we aren’t even close to reaching our goals. Would it help us to set goals that are more realistic so we can achieve them without overwhelming the team? Can we discuss and align on achievable targets?”

Again, this will likely result in calls for examples. Prepare accordingly.

Poor delegation

Your boss is stressed out because they feel obligated to handle everything themselves. The result is a bunch of specialists who aren’t doing the work they were hired to do. You have the time and resources to pitch in.

Try, “I’ve noticed challenges with task delegation. Do you think clarifying roles and responsibilities could improve efficiency? How can I help out more?”


Some people get treated well while others are ignored. It’s having a negative impact on the team’s well-being, and something needs to change before it gets worse.

Try, “I’ve heard some team members say there is favoritism within the team. I think ensuring fairness and equal opportunities for all team members could improve morale.”

Failing to address team issues

Problems within a team are to be expected, and managers are expected to handle them. When they don’t, it creates more problems. Alerting a manager that their inaction has consequences can wake them up and spur them to action.

Try, “I think that addressing team issues proactively would help maintain a more positive and productive work environment. Can we discuss strategies for conflict resolution?”

Treat each situation with respect

Bringing issues to your manager is a high-level leadership skill. One of the highest, in fact, in a time when so many direct reports are quick to nod “yes” to avoid conflict and get on with their lives. It takes guts to let your manager know there’s a problem, but it’s important to do. The more practice you have doing it, the easier it’ll get.