Ever since I wrote my first NY Times bestseller, Nobody’s Perfect: How to Give Criticism and Get Results, I have given hundreds of presentations on the subject of giving and taking criticism (when everyone else was using the bogus word “feedback”) to the most elite corporations, government organizations, and professional organizations such as YPO. Literally, I have asked thousands of working folks, “What is your most difficult criticism encounter?”
Hands down, “How do you criticize your boss?” is the most frequently asked and most difficult criticism encounter identified by the working world. The solution, of course, varies across bosses and situations, but you will give yourself a head start if you rid yourself of the belief that if you criticize your boss, you will suffer negative repercussions, a perception, that most individuals say is the major barrier to criticizing their boss.
While it is true that this scenario plays out occasionally, it is the exception. Most bosses—especially those who claim to be emotionally intelligent, authentic, and mindful—welcome criticism from their subordinates. In fact, there are dozens of studies showing a key attribute of effective leaders is that they seek out criticism of themselves because they see it as valuable information that can help them succeed. What they do not like is being embarrassed, threatened or undermined. For criticism that is packed with these qualities, negative repercussions are the norm. More than any other work criticism encounter, successfully critiquing your boss not only includes what you say but how you say it. In other words, psychology comes into play.
What is most important for you to recognize is that unlike criticizing your subordinate, you do not have the authority to tell your boss what to do; your best play is to position the information to him or her in a way that increases his or her receptivity to your thoughts and perhaps prompts action.
Thus, techniques for criticizing upward do not rely on direct, overt communication. The chain of command prohibits you from telling your superior that he’s an idiot or that he made another foolish mistake, even if the superior says such things to you daily. Instead, to criticize upward and create change, you must rely on informal relationships, timing, ambiguity, self-restraint, and implicit communication and perhaps overcome your boss’s perception of whether you are a worthy source of criticism. You need to master guerilla warfare.
For openers, adhere to these major ground rules:
Make sure your boss is receptive to criticism. There are no absolute ways to do this so use some soft signs: does your boss openly solicit criticism (your evaluations) and act upon those criticisms that are valid? Is your boss available to you, or do you have to spend a week just to set up a meeting? If you think your boss has low receptivity to criticism, than you may be politically wise to learn how to adapt to the situation than to criticize your boss, unless, of course, you can be extremely “artistic”
Make sure it is appropriate to criticize your boss. Only criticize your boss for something he or she is doing that affects your work; For situations in which you are not part of the project but the success of the project impacts your job, you will be able to still give your criticism, but only if you can demonstrate that the action your boss takes affects your job. Otherwise you will be told politely or not, “It’s none of your business.”
Know what you are talking about. Usually, your boss does not expect criticism from you, a tough expectation to combat. Therefore, it is essential for you to remember to validate your criticism; otherwise your boss may not only dismiss it but may begin to see you in a negative light, which no doubt will affect your job. Some ways for you to validate your criticism include collecting and analyzing data, accurately documenting how your boss’s actions affect your work; and, if possible, consulting with other people.
Avoid a power struggle. Any strategy for criticizing your boss must protect his or her self esteem and acknowledge implicitly or explicitly that he or she is the superior; otherwise your boss is apt to become defensive and you can always count on the fact that once you and your boss lock horns, your boss will come out on top. The results for you are that your criticism is rejected and the status quo is maintained.
One proven-effective technique for criticizing your boss is based on findings in attribution psychology as well as your own experiences; you can often get people to be receptive to your thoughts when they are attributed to a different source rather than yourself. This helps you avoid power struggles and be protective of your boss’s self esteem.
To implement, present your criticism in a way that emphasizes the validity of the criticism per se. The point here is not to present yourself as a valid source of criticism but to present your criticism as important and valid information. You are maximizing the significance of the information rather than taking the position that you, the subordinate, know best.
Instead of coming on as a know-it-all, you present yourself s sharing valuable data that relate to both your jobs. Your boss, instead of having to accept or reject a criticism, is now in the face-saving position of merely having to evaluate the information you are supplying. If the information is valid, there is an excellent chance your superior will take action to implement his decision. Some ways you can build up the validity of your criticism are: citing authoritative sources, submitting supportive material, and showing reference material to your superior.
A data analyst for a financial institution used this technique in criticizing his department head for the IT system he was considering. Instead of telling his boss that he we choosing the wrong system or that he knew which he should buy, the date analyst gave his boss several current reports that indicted anther system would be more responsive to their needs. His boss, after reading the articles, changed his choice n thanked her subordinate for supplying her with “invaluable information.”
What about the impossible bosses? For such bosses, subordinates must create and develop different criticism strategies until one is successful. Some possible solutions:
When a stoic boss doesn’t tell you where you stand, bring up the organization’s goals as a basis for determining specific criteria for next year’s performance rating, so “together” you can monitor your performance accordingly.
If the boss is crisis maker, develop a strong network of relationships with coworkers that will help you get information you need to assess the reality of the crisis.
When the boss is over controlling, work out of the office a lot if possible, and frequently reassure the boss that you’re on target.
If your boss is abrasive at a meeting, right after, perhaps a one liner to pique his receptivity will start dialogue and change: “I’m not quite sure the way you are coming across is in your best interest.”
If the boss is truly impossible, if he has a short temper, or if he never listens, then attempt to offer criticism only if you can be clever and creative.
Gear your strategy to answering the question: “How can I communicate this information so that my boss perceives it as useful?
If you have a specific criticism to give your boss and you lack the know-how, let me know and I will be happy to script it out for you.