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Proceed with caution: Tips for critiquing your boss

Do you have a problem boss? Here are some ways to cope.

September 20, 2012
Sponsored by Robert Half International

Tact and diplomacy are valuable skills in the workplace, especially when there’s a problem—and your boss is the cause of it. It’s no exaggeration to say that a misstep can have major career consequences. Sooner or later, it’s inevitable that you will have to give your manager negative feedback (aka “constructive criticism”).

That’s why you must tread carefully and deliver the difficult message in a way that your boss listens with an open mind and does not “shoot the messenger.” Here are some tips to help you navigate these treacherous waters:

Pick your battles. Some issues aren’t worth raising because your input is unlikely to have a positive impact. For example, your boss may have a habit of interrupting people. You notice that he does this with everyone—even clients. It’s likely that this will never change, no matter how delicately you point it out. In such a case, it’s best to let it go.

On the other hand, perhaps your manager’s tendency to procrastinate throws the entire department off schedule and creates crazy deadline pressures for you and the rest of the team. If this negatively affects the quality of everyone’s work or the ability to provide good client service, it’s worthwhile to broach the topic.

Consider your boss’s personality. Is your boss generally open to receiving feedback? This can play a big part in how you approach the situation. It’s awkward to ask your manager point-blank if she would like some criticism. Instead, look for hints. For example, does your supervisor solicit frank, candid comments during meetings, or does she quickly dismiss or downplay others’ opinions and ideas?

Set the stage. If you decide to speak up, don’t ambush your manager and launch into a detailed critique. It’s better to introduce the topic in a general way. For example, you could say, “I’ve been thinking about the new procedure you instituted for processing expense reports. Would you have some time later today or tomorrow to talk about it?”

Keep it private. Never, ever criticize the boss in front of others. This includes co-workers, superiors, vendors, and especially clients. No matter how sincere or well-meaning your intentions, even inadvertently making your boss look bad is not the way to get ahead.

Be sensitive about timing. If your department is short-staffed and your boss is scrambling to bridge the gaps, this is probably not the best moment to tell her that she needs to conduct shorter staff meetings. Unless the matter is extremely urgent, defer the feedback until a more opportune time. Generally speaking, try to find out what your supervisor is dealing with before requesting time to talk. If it’s a hectic, high-stress time, wait until things calm down.

Frame your feedback with care. Often it’s not what you say, but how you say it. When delivering a critique, avoid using sweeping generalizations like “always” and “never.” Don’t focus on your boss’s failings. Instead, adopt a neutral tone by explaining the impact his behavior or habits have on you or the team.

Give your manager a chance to respond. She may have a different perspective or may want to discuss your own role in the situation, so don’t get defensive if this is the case. On the other hand, if your manager responds with strong resistance, back off. Don’t press an issue to the point where you damage your relationship.

Offer a solution. Returning to an earlier example, if procrastination is the problem and the team can’t get timely approvals, it could mean your boss has too much on his plate. Ask what you can do to lighten the load. Your manager will likely appreciate your sensitivity to the pressures he faces.

Don’t complain to co-workers. Venting to your teammates may be cathartic, but it’s not a good idea if you want to stay in your manager’s good graces. The rumor mill is always running, and news of your complaining will make its way back to the boss, who will view it as disloyalty.

A final word on critiquing the boss: Be prepared for the status quo to remain unchanged. Unless there’s significant, compelling pressure on your manager to change, your feedback—however tactful and respectful—may not make a difference. In such situations, you’ll have to make adjustments in your own work style to accommodate your manager’s idiosyncrasies.

This article is provided courtesy of Robert Half International, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time, and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.