The Right Way to Give Negative Feedback to Your Manager

A high achiever with tons of experience and enthusiasm, his supervisor could be helpful at times. Other times, Daniel overstepped, particularly during team meetings. Although well-intentioned, Daniel constantly interrupted Tariq to elaborate on whatever point he was making.

This is a position many new employees may find themselves in — and I get it. Whether you’re dealing with a supervisor who interrupts you, criticizes you in front of others, talks down to you, or something else, giving negative feedback to the person you report to is rarely easy.

So what should you do?

Step 1: Question Yourself

Tariq and I had a series of conversations before deciding how he should move forward. To start, we asked ourselves two questions.

Question Yourself

1) Are You making a Mountain Out of a Molehill?

Before anything else, spend some time thinking about whether or not the situation warrants a conversation. If your manager acted out one time on a bad day, you can probably let it pass. But if you notice this behavior repeatedly, you might need to bring it up.

If Tariq’s manager had interrupted him just once, adding value to his presentation or addressing something critical, it may not have required a feedback session.

Sadly, this wasn’t the case.

2) Do the Potential Costs Outweigh the potential Benefits?

If your manager is someone who has shown that they are invested in your development and pushes you to perform better, consider whether giving them this feedback will deteriorate the quality of your relationship.

Will they appreciate it or get defensive and think you don’t want their help?

One way to gauge this is to observe how your manager responds to feedback from other subordinates. Ask your peers to see if they can provide you with some insight, or test the waters by giving neutral or positive feedback to your manager, paying attention to their response.

If you find that reaching out directly is not the best method, think about other feedback channels, like anonymized employee surveys.

Step 2: Prepare

If you’ve answered these questions, and decided to move forward with a direct conversation, it’s time to be proactive. Here are four things you need to do to prepare.


1) Block Time on Your Manager’s Calendar

Try to have the conversation within a day or two of the event’s occurrence so that it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Let your manager know (in person or via email) that you want to meet with them briefly and be clear on what it’s about.

You might say something like, “I was hoping we could chat for thirty minutes this week if you have time. I’d love to talk to you about our last team meeting. But I feel it would be best to do it one-on-one.”

Send an email invitation to block time on their calendar the day you want to chat. In the morning or early afternoon is best. There’s nothing more stressful than waiting to have a difficult conversation for five hours. Make sure the invite has a clear label to remind your manager of what you’ll be discussing. “Feedback on our Thursday team meeting,” for instance, is clearer than something ambiguous like “Quick catch up.”

2) Identify What You want to Say at the Start of the Conversation

This is important because it will set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Tariq practiced delivering this statement to initiate his talk with Daniel:

“Thank you, Daniel. I really appreciate you taking the time to hear me out. There’s something on my mind from our last team meeting. I wanted to let you know how it made me feel because I think honesty is important for us to maintain a strong relationship. Would that be okay with you?”

Notice the structure of his words:

  • He expressed gratitude.
  • He framed his concern in a constructive way.
  • He explicitly asked Daniel if he was okay with having the conversation — a method known as “proceed by agreement.”

We know from negotiation theory that getting people to say “yes” a few times at the beginning of a conversation creates a more constructive climate. When you don’t explicitly ask someone to agree on something, it’s easier for them to opt out or change the topic later on.

3) Pick a Feedback Method

While there are many ways to give feedback, I recommended that Tariq experiment with the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) feedback model — a no-nonsense, three-step model that sets the stage for a two-way dialogue.

In Tariq’s situation, this is how each step in the SBI model translates:

  • Point out when and where a specific behavior occurred (the situation) to set the context: “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research…”
  • Explain in detail what you saw or heard (the specific behavior): “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research, I noticed that you interrupted me three times…”
  • Describe the impact (how the behavior made you think and feel): “During our team meeting this Thursday, while I was presenting the market research, I noticed that you interrupted me three times and it left me feeling undermined.”

Above all, remember to be precise with your words. If Tariq chose a vague word like “frequently” instead of “three times,” for example, he’d be leaving his feedback open to interpretation, potentially resulting in an unwanted discussion about what “frequently” really means.

4) Rehearse It

Although this model may seem “short and sweet,” it’s harder to stick to than you might think — especially if you’re nervous. And if you’ve never had this kind of conversation before, know that feeling nervous is natural.

There are three people who will come in handy during this step: a friend, a trusted colleague, or a mentor. Practice delivering your message to one — or all three — of them. When you rehearse, ask the other person these questions:

  • Does my message come across as authentic?
  • Did you understand the core of my message?
  • How would you feel after hearing this?

Similarly, rehearsing your message will allow you to identify exactly when you want to iterate your point and when you want to remain silent and invite engagement from your manager.

Step 3: Have the Conversation

Now that you’ve identified what you want to say and how you want to say it, you’re ready to have that meeting. Remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes reality may differ from your practice sessions.

Have the Conversation

Once you’ve delivered your core message, take a pause. Give your manager sufficient time to reflect and respond. Waiting even a few seconds may feel like an eternity, but be patient. The last thing you want to do is take the stage when it’s their turn to talk.

While this was a great outcome for both for Tariq and Daniel, not every manager will respond so well. If you are met with anger or defensiveness instead of compassion, there are a few ways you can soften the blow:

  • Apologize for the impact (not your behavior), outline your intention, and ask for clarification. “I’m sorry this upsets you. I wanted to have a conversation that could help me grow and help us work better together. Could you help me understand why my feedback upsets you?”
  • Say nothing. Remaining silent often helps ease the tension, allowing the other person to blow off steam. Wait for the other person to finish talking. Then, consider suggestion one.
  • Walk away (respectfully). If Daniel had gotten angry, it would have been wise for Tariq to end the meeting, preventing further escalation. Tariq could have said, “I’m sorry this upsets you. Perhaps we can talk about this some other time?” to allow for a cooling-off period before he brought it up again.

Step 4: End with a Thank You

If your manager has taken the time to listen to you and hear your concerns, let them know you’re thankful for their support. Showing gratitude increases well-being and builds stronger relationships at work.

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In the early stages of your career, giving feedback — especially to your manager — may seem like a daunting task. But it’s so important. The relationship between managers and employees is not just a strong predictor for team performance, it has a great impact on your own growth and development. Use the SBI model to guide your efforts. You won’t regret addressing important issues if you do it in a thoughtful way.