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When, Where, and How to Give Your Boss Feedback

How do you get someone to hear you when it’s not their tendency to listen?

If you want to speak candidly with management, give yourself the best chance of having an impact by choosing timing and venues that are least likely to trigger a backlash — whether it’s the great stone wall of silence or an actual display of anger and repercussions that can damage your ability to work.

Many effective tactics for being heard seem simplistic, but there’s no point in trying to make a delivery when you can’t even find the door.

It’s All in the Timing

Figure out which times of day are the best — or at minimum, the least terrible — for a conversation. Maybe it’s after her second cup of coffee. Or maybe it’s immediately after he returns from lunch, never before.

Good timing is also related to current company events. For example, it’s probably a good idea to postpone a heart-to-heart with your boss until after the completion of the stressful presentation that took two weeks to prepare — but only if the plan was approved. If the response was bad, you might want to wait — unless of course, your comments provide exactly the information that will recover the situation.

Location, Location, Location

Some execs listen best in their offices, where they have the power of the desk — putting you physically in the role of subordinate and giving them the advantage of the overt power that comes with “granting” you a hearing.

Others are more approachable in neutral, collegial space — say, the lunchroom or an empty conference room. Even walking down the hall can work, if your target’s mind is not already racing with the next set of things to do.

Travel opportunities can provide some of the most effective locations of all, since being away from the office permits suspension of some of the ordinary rules. (See also How to Get Your Point Across without Poking a Hole in Anyone.) But you don’t need to travel far to demonstrate that your discussion is a big deal: Inviting your boss to lunch, or at least out for coffee (nice coffee!), creates a bit of a special occasion and one where you are “owed” attention.

Play It Smart

Follow one of the Golden Rules of Business: Praise in public, criticize in private. Very few people take well to being corrected in front of others; those who don’t may lash out at you for having had the temerity to do so. (For a lucky example, see When Someone’s Poking a Hole in You: Performing Evasive Maneuvers.)

On the other hand, some people only pay attention when they’re in front of either witnesses or supporters, so make sure to find out if the exec you need to talk to is one of those.

It helps to know some colleagues who do have the exec’s ear and trust — not just because there’s potential strength in numbers, but because you can learn from their example and potentially adopt some of their effective tactics or techniques. Do they present scenarios, ask a lot of questions, or only meet in person after they’ve submitted something in writing? Is a written presentation most successful if it includes reams of data, tables, and charts, or is it better as a simple one-pager?

If you haven’t learned these things, you probably haven’t been paying enough attention to be successful in your bid to be heard.

Know Your Audience

Early in my career, I had a boss who was open to discussion only after hours — that’s when he was expansive and tolerant in ways he usually wasn’t during the workday. For any important communication, it was well worth it to stay late to talk to him.

Another boss was only receptive if I approached him before he had decided that he wanted to speak to me. Subordinates who waited until after he had developed his own interest in a matter, or was in follow-up mode, found that he had already made up his mind and was not open to anything new.

If you really want to be heard, listen and watch carefully to learn the patterns of the person you want to convince, and try to engage with them when they’re already at their best and most open.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “When, Where, and How to Give Your Boss Feedback

  1. Good stuff, Liz. For those of us that lead people, I think it’s good to flip the table and do a little self analysis here. This is what comes to my mind…

    Where and when am I most approachable? Where or when might I be “power playing” things a bit? Am I communicating to those I lead when and how they should approach me?

  2. Micah, these are such good questions.

    Another spin on your first question is: What are the conditions under which I listen best — and do my subordinates (or colleagues, or family members, for that matter) know so they can approach me then? And how can I create those conditions more often?

    You’ve given me an idea for a post from the leader’s perspective that I’ll try to take on after I cover a little more of this topic from the worker’s side. The funny thing is that so many people hold both roles — but they don’t often see the suffering they create the way they see the suffering they experience.

    Thanks for your insight, Micah, and for making me think a little more.

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