How to get useful feedback from a bad boss

How to get useful feedback from a bad boss

Working for a boss who frequently loses his temper, is dishonest, demeaning or just neglectful can really destroy a person’s enthusiasm, especially in a small office. Sadly, such relationships are all too common: nearly half of working adults report they have left a job to escape a bad manager.

There is a simple tool that can turn things around. It may seem counterintuitive, and it’s not easy: seek feedback from your boss.

The costs of avoidance

Unfortunately, avoiding interactions with a bad boss has never improved a toxic workplace, understandable as avoidance is. And worse, it leaves employees unsure of how to succeed, constantly walking on eggshells. There are other costs. Because a bad boss doesn’t care about employee development and may even feel threatened by direct reports, they may practice “ambush evaluations” at year-end. Seeking feedback short-circuits that surprise.

A bad boss often assumes employees are shirking day-to-day responsibilities and plan to leave them in the lurch at the soonest opportunity. Seeking an audience to discuss career plans short-circuits suspicion about motives.

The benefits of seeking feedback from a bad boss

While it is not easy, there are unique benefits to poking the bear. If a supervisory relationship is truly and irretrievably broken with no possibility of redemption, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later.

Seeking feedback from a bad boss may also turn a bad boss into a powerful ally. Employees who stand up for themselves in a non-defensive way– such as by seeking challenging feedback– often gain the loyalty of managers used to hostile push-back.

Finally, even bad bosses may have insights on possible improvements. In fact, a bad boss’s feedback may give you ideas for improvement in areas no one else is willing to talk to you about.

Understanding the mind of a bad boss

In order to get feedback that builds trust, helps you be more productive and supports your professional goals, you have to understand the reasons why bad bosses avoid feedback. Most bad bosses avoid giving constructive feedback for two simple reasons.

  1. The fear barrier

    • First, a bad boss fears that you (the employee) will do poorly following their investment in feedback and this will reflect badly upon them.
    • Second, a bad boss fears that you will do well and will thus become competition.
    • Finally, a bad boss fears that giving feedback will expose their weaknesses and knowledge gaps.
  2. The selfishness barrier

    • A bad boss believes feedback takes too much time. In addition to preparing for and giving feedback, they anticipate they will have to defend themself against an inevitable backlash.
    • A bad boss also believes feedback takes too much energy because fragile employees (they believe) will need lots of hand-holding.
    • Finally, bad bosses believe there’s no return on their investment in time and energy. Giving feedback means learning about yet another employee likely to leave anyway.

Overcoming the boss’s fears and selfishness

Ways to get feedback from a bad boss:

  1. Seek feedback from peers first.

    If your work brings you into contact with other people, ask for their candid assessment of how you are doing. Both informal questions and anonymous surveys may be possible.

    With others’ feedback in hand, you can ask your boss for their feedback on the opinions offered. Requesting reactive feedback diminishes a bad boss’s fear that your anticipated failure to improve (their expectation) will be considered their fault– they were just commenting upon other people’s observations.

  2. Draft feedback for your boss’s comment.

    If your employer uses a standardized feedback or evaluation form, fill one (or a portion of one) out rating yourself. If not, jot down bullet point notes about your performance in key areas. Either way, be candid and positive in your self-assessment. Remember your primary goal is to improve trust in the workplace.

    When possible, strengths and weaknesses should be phrased in terms of outcomes, as in “When I do X / then Y happens.” For example, “When I interact well with customers in person, I help increase website traffic.” Phrasing your assessments in terms of outcomes helps avoid personal attacks and focuses your boss upon mutually desired outcomes. It also allows a boss fearful of competition to avoid making a declaration that you have “arrived.”

    To counter a bad boss’s fear of being exposed for lack of knowledge, identify areas where you believe your boss’s ability to observe might have been limited. This gives implied permission to defer feedback in those areas while putting them on notice (indirectly) that you expect to be evaluated fairly in these areas when annual assessments come due.

  3. Make giving feedback an attractive skill.

    You may be able to reframe a negative relationship by asking for feedback in the context of a potential mentoring relationship (a leadership trait). Ask what a good mentorship relationship would look like and how you could get there.

    In asking your boss to see you as a future candidate for mentorship, you may propose actions you believe would allow your boss to feel comfortable in assuming the role of mentor– no commitments of time or energy at this point.

  4. Seek opportunities to gain recognition for your team.

    Taking care to avoid appearing to go around your boss, there may be opportunities to seek advice on how you might support your boss among their peers or within the field or industry.

    In some cases, there may be awards or recognition programs that you might offer to pursue on behalf of your team. Developing an award nomination provides a non-threatening way to learn from others– and from your boss– what they see as your team’s strengths, thus giving you focus areas.

In summary, when a supervisory relationship seems toxic, overcome a bad boss’s fears and selfishness by widening your feedback scope to include others, by drafting your own feedback (using an established form or just notes) and asking for comments, by asking for feedback in terms of a future mentorship role and by seeking opportunities to make your boss look good to a greater audience.