Employer Branding

Why People Fear Giving Their Manager Feedback

Mary has a Director who comes in EVERY DAY between 9 and 10 when her team is supposed to be there at 8. While the boss, the Executive Director, talked with the person, the tardiness continues. Because this Director is allowed to come in late every day it has affected morale within the department. According to Mary, no one says anything to the E.D. because “…we don’t want a target on our back. Others have been pushed out by our E.D., so we don’t dare speak up.”

Unfortunately, Mary is not alone in witnessing bad behavior from management.

In a recent survey, we asked 1,335 employees to disclose their boss’ significant weakness—one that everyone knows and discusses covertly to each other, but not directly with their manager. Asking the question was like opening the flood gates on managers behaving badly. Eight out of 10 participants responded with a colorful “open secret” about their boss’ behavior.

According to our respondents, the top five weaknesses bosses have but don’t know they have included:

  • Overwhelmed and inadequate
  • A poor listener
  • Biased and unfair
  • Distant and disconnected
  • Disorganized and forgetful

It’s clear people have intense and pervasive frustrations with their boss, and yet they don’t feel safe or able to give their manager feedback. So, instead of speaking up, they vent to each other. Essentially, everyone is aware of and annoyed by the boss’ shortcomings—everyone that is, except for the boss.

But why is feedback so one-sided? According to our study, the primary reasons people report for their office-wide silence run the gamut. Some fear speaking up would offend their manager, others say it would cause their boss to retaliate or hurt their career. And many felt their workplace culture doesn’t actually support people airing concerns and frustrations. Finally, a large portion of people simply had a skill gap—they didn’t know what to say or how to bring it up.

But regardless of the reasons for holding their tongue, the silence is a symptom of an accountability crisis sweeping corporate America. This crisis does more that propagate bad behavior, it erodes results.

That’s because the health of any organization, team, or relationship is a function of the average lag time between when people identify and discuss problems. In healthy teams, when people see something, they say something. In weak teams, performance problems, concerns, and errors remain unchecked which eventually erode results and relationships. To improve the health and success of any team, shorten the lag time between when people see something and say something.

The good news is, there are a handful of skills people can use to confront a misbehaving manager and reduce the accountability gap. These skills help people step up to performance discussions while also preserving relationships and results:

  • Work on you first, the boss second. Get your emotions in check by looking for how you may be adding to the problem. It isn’t that the boss doesn’t have faults; it’s that most people tend to exaggerate their boss’s problems and ignore how they may be contributing.
  • Hold the right conversation. Most people think they are giving their boss feedback but fail to get to the real issue that concerns them. For example, if your fundamental concern is that your boss doesn’t respect you or that you don’t trust your boss – you have to find a way to discuss that issue without skirting around it.
  • Start with safety. It can be tough to tell your boss you don’t trust him or her. But it is completely possible to do so without rupturing the relationship if you can help your boss feel safe. People feel psychologically safe when they know you care about their interests and respect them. Start with: “I have a concern I’d like to discuss. It’s important to me, but it’s also something I think will help me work more effectively. May I discuss it with you?”
  • Facts first. Don’t start with your harsh judgments or vague conclusions. For example, “I don’t trust you” or “You’re a control freak.” Instead, start with the facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language and be specific. For example, “After you told me you brought me up for a promotion in the HR meeting, two people at that meeting e-mailed me and asked me why I wasn’t recommended by you.”

About the author: Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, a top 20 leadership training company. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

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