How to Critique Your Boss

Question:

I’m having problems with my boss that stem from lack of front-end guidance on projects, despite my efforts to elicit as much information as possible. Then, once I get deep into a project, he suddenly comes up with suggestions that require me to completely change course. How can I bring up the situation without seeming overly critical?

Answer:

Tact and diplomacy are valuable skills in the workplace, especially when there’s a problem — and your boss is the cause of it. Still, it’s important to speak up when a manager’s actions thwart your productivity or are a significant source of frustration. The challenge is to raise your concerns in such a way that your boss will listen with an open mind and work with you to resolve the situation. Sound like a tall order? Consider these tips for navigating this tricky territory:

Set the stage. Don’t ambush your manager with a detailed critique, especially if you’re still reeling from being told to change course on a project. Introduce the subject in a more general way after having time to process the information. For example, you could say, “I’ve been thinking about your latest suggestions for managing our staffing initiatives. Would you have some time later today or tomorrow to talk about it?”

Frame your feedback. Remember that it’s often not what you say, but how you say it that determines another person’s reaction. Don’t focus on your boss’s failings and avoid using sweeping generalizations like “always” and “never.” Instead, adopt a neutral tone by explaining what the impact of his behavior or habits have been on you and the team. If possible, give specific details about how much time and effort you or others have put into a project, only to have to reverse course.

Compare notes. Pay close attention to how your manager responds. He may have a different perspective or may not realize how much he has been vacillating. He may even acknowledge his managerial challenges in regard to the situation. In this case, you’ll want to put your heads together to find a better way of interacting.

Offer solutions. Be ready with suggestions for turning the problem around. It might help to agree that you’ll propose in detail how you’re going to tackle future projects and schedule frequent check-ins with your manager to brief him on where things stand and solicit feedback. It may be that your supervisor is better at offering guidance on a real-time basis.

Although it’s important to stay in your supervisor’s good graces, don’t shy from offering constructive criticism when it’s truly necessary to improve your productivity and job satisfaction. A results-oriented manager should appreciate the candid feedback. Just take care to exercise tact -- and follow up as needed to ensure you’re both doing what you agreed upon to create a more positive working relationship.