SINGAPORE: If you want to watch a group of people erupt into vociferous discussion, just ask them if they give feedback to their boss.
In these volatile times, there is a growing trend of dissatisfaction with work and managers.
People have never been as anxious, paranoid, on edge and burnt out. COVID-19 has provided the perfect storm for workplace relationships.
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If you want a good relationship, at work or otherwise, you must communicate. Yet, out of 10 people I coach who say it is “impossible” to give feedback to their boss, only one or two have actually tried doing so.
Most shy away from even giving it a go. They worry about the potential repercussions and what a landmine the exercise could turn into.
IS THE HESITATION A CULTURAL CHALLENGE?
This can be an especially tricky issue in Singapore and parts of Asia due to a strong culture of harmony and hierarchy.
Malcolm Gladwell famously theorised the reason behind Korean Air having more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world in the late-1990s was a cultural legacy of juniors needing to be deferential towards superiors.
This meant that juniors in possession of valuable information or a differing opinion were often reluctant to share these with their superiors for fear it was not their place to do so.
Yet, in this era of rapid change, it is in the interest of leaders and their teams to equip themselves with all the information they need for success. Hearing constructive feedback from staff members is a crucial component.
All this is not to ignore the handful of bosses who have such delicate egos or calcified mindsets, they can be completely impervious and uninterested in feedback no matter how times you try.
In such cases, I suggest considering other career opportunities.
However, most leaders may just be nervous, with some even slightly defensive in the moment while receiving feedback. But many appreciate that the person had the courage to speak up and end up growing trust in the relationship.
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Ultimately, all of us need to learn that important life skill of “managing up” and giving feedback to our important stakeholders, or we will end up being conflict-avoidant people, never knowing how to ask for the support we need.
In my experience, many struggle because they use confrontational approaches that could prematurely assign blame. I once read someone suggest directly going up against a boss to say: “How many times did you think you checked in on me yesterday? It was actually seven times. How did you think that made me feel?”
This not only sounded overly aggressive, it also misses the need for some ownership of the problem on the part of the worker to make the relationship work.
Another example, from a Harvard Business Review article, quoted leadership consultant John Baldoni who suggested saying: “I noticed at that meeting that you came across as bullying.” To me, this sounded like shaming and career suicide.
THE REQUEST FOR SUPPORT
Your first approach should be to reframe the negative feedback with the key message that you need your boss’ support to achieve your best.
Say you have a controlling boss. Instead of making the feedback about them (“you need to back off and stop checking on me 10 times a day”), try engaging them as an ally.
Zoom out first and find a common goal. Say: “We’ve both been so busy with the recent changes and the pressure from the head office. I’ve been thinking about how we could optimise our workflow. Would you have five minutes to hear some suggestions?”
If they say yes, you can frame your feedback in the form of an idea you’ve had for better success at work: “I’ve been looking over my productivity over the past week. I get 30 per cent more work done when I schedule more interruption-free time.
"So I wanted to suggest doing a weekly update meeting instead of ad hoc updates. Would you be open to trying this for a few weeks? We can review and if it doesn’t work out, we can always revert to the previous arrangement.”
THE LEARNING CONVERSATION
The second approach is to frame negative feedback as a “learning conversation” where you ask for advice.
Let’s say you have a boss constantly overloading the team with urgent work on short deadlines. Instead of making the feedback about trying to change their behaviour, try this instead.
Ask them if they have 10 minutes to spare to give you some advice. Say that you value their expertise and experience as a leader. It’s hard to say no to something like this.
If your boss agrees, then say something like: “Lately, I’ve been anxious about not performing at my best. I’ve noticed that in the past week, there have been four requests with tight deadlines of one-day turnarounds. I’m sure you must have encountered such challenges too in your career, what guidance or advice do you have for me?”
There are limitations to how realistic such advice can be, in operational roles where short timelines are the norm but stating the parameters of your struggle could help you articulate what you can produce with more time (for example, a more detailed report with graphs or expert input).
The key here is to listen, and genuinely have a mindset of curiosity and learning.
After you’ve heard your bosses’ perspective, you could also offer a suggestion (“would you be open to me sharing a perspective on this?”). Try to make it specific too (“what could work is if we have a system of prioritising requests”).
THE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT APPROACH
The third approach I recommend is converting negative feedback for undesired behaviour into positive reinforcement for desired behaviour. I call it making a crumb a cake.
Let’s say you have a boss who is always late for meetings. On the rare occasion she or he is on time, give them positive reinforcement for that good behaviour.
You could say: “I appreciate our meeting started on time. It means a lot to me as I know how busy you are. I feel that we managed to cover a lot of ground today.”
This is a classic parenting principle. Don’t tell them what behaviour you don’t want to see, tell them what you do want to see and praise them when you see it.
But you have to be sincere about the praise, otherwise it may come across as sarcastic or obsequious.
PRINCIPLES TO BEAR IN MIND
As you’re working through how to approach performance appraisal and feedback this season, remember such reviews are the best time to give feedback.
Don’t let your fear hold you back. Few people have been fired because they gave feedback to their bosses.
Don’t write your supervisor off and resign before doing so. Managers tell me they never knew their employees were unhappy, and would have loved an opportunity to fix the issue instead of having to lose a valued member of the team.
Avoid giving negative feedback in public, always do this one-on-one with your boss. Back up your observations with data and don’t make vague generalisations.
Such reviews aren’t a time for ranting. Be constructive. Be clear about the potential benefits you’re aiming for. Always come to your manager with a solution. Never put more work on your boss’s plate.
Remember also, to have a little empathy for your boss. Leaders today have never been through such confusing times. They are being told to be vulnerable and but still inspire confidence.
In a perfect world, our offices would be full of courageous conversations and radical candour. I hope we are moving towards that goal.
Meantime, these tips I’ve shared will help give you the best chance of being heard and supported.
Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to Adrian and one CEO in CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
Crystal Lim-Lange is co-author of the national bestselling book Deep Human- Practical Superskills for a Future of Success , Strategic Advisor to Minerva Project, and the CEO of Forest Wolf, a leadership training and talent development consultancy.