2 Phrases to Use When Giving A Bad Boss Negative Feedback, According to a 19-Year Corporate CEO

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Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE234
Leadership, Executive Presence & Career Coach
July 24, 2024 at 1:10PM UTC

Your boss is driving you crazy. You feel as if they don’t understand what it’s like to actually do the work. They aren’t considering the consequences of their words or decisions. They play the political game too often to be trusted. Their vision is self-serving or flawed.

Collaborative teams where character-rich colleagues work in alignment with servant leader bosses are ideal but not often the case. Everyone has an ego and bad bosses usually have the biggest.

Managing the dance with ego is essential at work and in life. There are two egos in a boss and direct report relationship – theirs and yours. You want to anticipate theirs and regulate your own. This requires subduing your need to be right. You don’t need to be right. You just need to get it right.

If your boss isn’t getting it right either, it may be time to give them some negative feedback.

Negative feedback is a misnomer in today’s work environment. The purpose of feedback at work is to help a person improve interpersonally and strategically so that they can be more productive. For someone to grow, they have to feel that any feedback is well intended to help them, not to degrade them. 

What To Do Before You Give Your Boss Negative Feedback

How do you consciously convey feedback for the mutual benefit for you both without feeling disingenuous or compromising your professionalism?

Sometimes, we have to manage up. This means managing your boss as a good leader would manage any employee. Focus on a positive relationship, not the negative fallout.

Before giving any feedback to your boss or anyone else, the most important thing to do is to ask yourself, “What do I hope to accomplish with this feedback?” This will set the tone for the conversation. If you want to rant, blame, control, scold or convey “I-told-you-so,” it will come across that way.

What do you ultimately want from a feedback conversation with an unfavorable boss? If you want a better work environment, don’t shame them – that accomplishes nothing. Ultimately, you may want respect, more flexibility, a better relationship, to undo a stereotype you’ve been cast in, to position the team to succeed, or to show them that their behavior is unacceptable. You might approach them with these phrases.

2 Phrases to Use When Giving Your Boss Negative Feedback

1. “May I share my discomfort with something that happened yesterday?”

 If you open with this, it makes the discussion about you and not them. Also, posing this as a question to which they agree with positions them to listen. There is no accusation implied in this question.

Stick with your feelings about what happened. Nobody can argue your feelings. Follow the opening question with how you feel about what was said or done. Give only the facts about what they said or did. No interpretation and no judgment. For example, use the structure “When you said…..it made me feel…..” 

Do not inject characterizations or judgments such as “you were mean” or “you disregarded my opinion.” These arguable interpretations will not advance what you want. Keep your focus on what you ultimately want – a better work environment.

If you want to undo a stereotype, pose it as a question. “I realize I may be viewed as underperforming. I want to undo that. If I were exceeding your expectations, what would that look like?” This forces them to tell you exactly what they expect. They likely won’t be definite so ask them to be very specific. Then you will regularly report on exactly what they tell you.

Emotionally immature people may gaslight you and try to make you feel that your understanding of what happened isn’t true. This is why you only state truths – they are not debatable. They can’t argue the facts.

Anticipate their fears and needs. Pacifying their fears and giving them what they want makes them trust you more. Make the feedback become something they need to hear so that they can have what they want. Align their goals with the feedback you want to deliver while imparting your trustworthiness.

2. “Because I know that you value X, may I share something with you that may be getting in the way?”

This is all about them succeeding. This way anything you say after that is positioned to help them reach their goal, not hear how awfully they behave or how they did something wrong.

If you have an extremely difficult boss, your sole goal is to build trust and stay off their radar screen. This will give you autonomy. The biggest mistake direct reports make is that they try to be their boss’ inside confidant. Big egos have a difficult time with trust. Be someone they can count on and don’t have to worry about. Report on everything you are doing before they ask. Position everything you tell them as something they value. Stay in the background. Don’t debate with them or seek approval. Their ego is untethered. 


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE is a 19-year corporate CEO and an ICF certified executive and career coach at MaryLeeGannon.com. She helps leaders build influence, emotional intelligence, and executive presence so they can have more effective careers, happier lives, and better relationships while it still matters. For more executive presence tips, use this link https://www.maryleegannon.com/31-success-practices-for-leaders to her FREE eBook — 31 Executive Presence Practices for Leaders.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for giving negative feedback to a bad boss? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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