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Mastering Upward Feedback: Effective Strategies for Communicating with Your Boss


Providing feedback and managing up to your immediate supervisor is a critical aspect of professional success and organizational efficiency. These practices contribute to individual career development and foster a collaborative work environment. However, delivering feedback to a superior requires a blend of tact, clarity, and constructive dialogue. This article explores the best practices for providing feedback and managing up, illustrated with detailed examples.

Feedback in the workplace is not just a tool for continuous improvement and effective communication, it's a cornerstone of professional development and organizational efficiency. It provides a platform for employees to voice concerns, share insights, and contribute to decision-making. Constructive feedback is a mutual growth opportunity, helping supervisors understand their team's challenges (Goldsmith, 2010). However, providing feedback to a superior can be daunting due to the power dynamics at play.

The Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model is not just an effective framework for providing feedback, it's a game-changer. It structures feedback to be clear and specific, which is crucial when addressing a supervisor. For instance, if an employee feels their manager's approach to project deadlines is unrealistic, they can use the SBI model. They might say, "In our last project meeting (Situation), I noticed that you set a deadline that was one week earlier than the previous ones (Behavior). This made the team feel pressured and led to a decrease in work quality (Impact)." This method ensures the feedback is grounded in specific instances, making it easier for the supervisor to understand and act upon (Sparrowe & Liden, 2005).

Framing feedback positively can significantly influence how it is received. For example, employees who notice their supervisor frequently interrupts during team meetings can frame their feedback by highlighting the potential for improved team engagement. They might say, "I appreciate your enthusiasm in our meetings. I've noticed that when everyone has a chance to finish their thoughts, we generate even more great ideas. It might be beneficial to let each person finish before responding." This approach addresses the issue and aligns the feedback with a positive outcome (Baker et al., 2013).

Pairing feedback with possible solutions can be highly effective. If an employee feels that their manager's communication style is too directive, they could suggest alternative approaches. They might say, "I've observed that our team responds well to collaborative decision-making. Perhaps we could try incorporating more team discussions into our planning sessions to enhance buy-in and creativity." Offering solutions demonstrates proactiveness and a commitment to improvement, making the feedback more constructive and actionable (Gabarro & Kotter, 1993).

Managing up is not just about improving the relationship with one's supervisor; it is about influencing their behavior for mutual benefit and contributing to organizational goals. It involves understanding the supervisor's goals, challenges, and working style and tailoring one's actions to support these elements effectively (Gabarro & Kotter, 2005). An essential aspect of managing up is aligning your work with your boss's objectives. For example, if a supervisor prioritizes client satisfaction, an employee can focus on delivering exceptional customer service and proactively share positive client feedback with their boss. By understanding and aligning with their supervisor's priorities, the employee helps achieve organizational goals and strengthens their relationship with their supervisor (Hill, 2019).

Another effective strategy is anticipating your supervisor's needs and communicating proactively. If an employee knows their boss has a critical presentation coming up, they could offer to prepare data, create slides, or handle other preparatory tasks. This approach demonstrates initiative and reliability. Additionally, keeping the supervisor informed about project progress without waiting to be asked shows foresight and helps in building trust (McKeown, 2012).

Drawing from "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, taking responsibility for everything in one's sphere of influence is crucial in managing up. For example, if an employee notices a recurring issue in project management, instead of merely pointing out the problem, they could propose a structured plan to address it, thereby demonstrating ownership and initiative. This approach solves the problem and positions the employee as a proactive and reliable team member (Willink & Babin, 2015).

Providing feedback and managing up is integral to professional growth and organizational success. Employees can effectively communicate with their supervisors by employing structured feedback models, framing feedback positively, and offering solutions. Simultaneously, understanding and aligning with the supervisor's goals, anticipating their needs, and practicing extreme ownership are vital strategies for managing up. These practices foster a collaborative work environment and contribute to personal career advancement.


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