For the past three weeks I’ve been co-teaching a course on conflict resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University. We are preparing some of the top teachers in the country to become top school administrators. Proficiency in giving constructive and effective feedback is a core interpersonal skill for anyone moving into a senior leadership position and a hot topic in my class at Columbia.
Management literature is replete with advice on how to better confront staff and encourage behavior change in employees. Even when you’re the one who sits in the big chair, giving critical feedback to others can be difficult and even intimidating. No one (ok, almost no one) enjoys causing others discomfort, even if it’s in their best interest.
But what about those times when you need to challenge a superior? There is very little advice in the literature or professional development for those times when you need to “confront up.” Here are four steps to help you based on the IIRP’s two decades of teaching and coaching top leaders around the world:
Tell your supervisor this is difficult for you.
For most of us, confronting others is scary. This is doubly true when that other person is your boss. Begin the conversation by admitting this and telling them, “This is hard for me.” This sounds like a small thing, but it will immediately begin to lower your own anxiety and, if needed, humanize you to your supervisor.
Acknowledge their authority and your position.
Many leaders have a staff person who regularly signals that they believe they could run the organization better than everyone else. You don’t want to be seen as that person. Avoid this by acknowledging that you are giving your supervisor feedback as someone who works for them and not the other way around.
Do this by centering the conversation, and your feedback, on helping them reach their goals, not yours. You want to help them, not only yourself.
This might sound something like, “I fully support your goals (be specific if needed) and want to be as much help to you as I possibly can. That’s why I asked to talk with you.”
If your boss has an ego issue, this will lower their defensiveness. If you’re lucky to work for a healthy and balanced individual, they will be impressed and moved by your humility.
Be specific about behavior and use feeling words.
There are lots of formulas for giving feedback. In my opinion, most are much too clever and only prolong the agony of what is an inherently unpleasant experience – even with the best of intentions and healthiest of participants. As an Australian colleague of mine often says, there’s no nice way to poke someone in the eye. It is most humane to just get it over with as swiftly as possible.
The trusty format of, “When you (insert specific behavior here), I feel (insert feeling word here)," is usually the best start. Then you can fill in the blanks with whatever else you need to say. Again, also keep this part centered on what will help you perform at your best in order to help them reach their goals. This is professional feedback, not therapy. (Unless of course you are confronting your therapist, in which case don’t bother, just get a new therapist.)
This is the point where they will want to say something and you will let them. Hopefully, this will include thanking you for coming to them directly and asking what they can do to help you, which leads us to the next part.
Ask for a specific behavior change.
If you’ve taken the time and care to do all of the above, you want to make sure that you achieve something tangible. Be sure to ask for a specific behavior change. This should be concrete and immediately actionable.
An example might be, “I would like to ask that, in the future, you allow me to bring you my team’s best ideas first – before imposing solutions on my unit. That will help us grow as a team, take more initiative, and hopefully make your job easier.”
Lastly, thank your boss for listening. This was hard for you, but it was likely also hard for them. If they allowed you to get through all four steps above and ended by thanking you for coming to talk to them, they did a good job too.