Earlier this week, I wrote a post called ’3 Techniques To Give Direct Feedback At Work. There were a few follow up questions posted in the comments that lend themselves to additional posts with further clarification.  Here is a question posed by Jay Goldman from Rypple.com.  Jay asks:

How would you handle a situation in which giving the feedback could be detrimental to your job? Let’s say, for example, that the ‘chatty cathy’ in your office is actually the CEO. You know she’s not interrupting you on purpose and really wants to see your results, but you also know that she’s pretty sensitive about personal feedback. How would you handle letting her know?

Believe it or not, the question of how to give your CEO or others in the C-suite direct feedback comes up more than you think. Many employees would love to give feedback but either the leader makes himself or herself unapproachable or the company culture supports that the decisions or actions of those in the C-suite are untouchable.  This makes the employee feel like there is no use in giving the feedback.

I’ve heard the advice that for leaders, the best feedback is given in an anonymous survey, in the employee engagement survey, or by leaving an anonymous note in the ‘Suggestion Box’ if the company has one.  I know of situations where employees leave anonymous, typed letters on a leader’s desk.

As I said in the earlier post about giving feedback to a colleague, this indirect feedback is not the best approach.  Why not?

  • In a survey, your one comment can get lost in the sea of responses and not stand out to the leader as something that really needs to change.
  • Dropping anonymous notes in a box or on their desk  is also not good because since the leader is human, that leader may focus more on trying to determine who wrote the note than on the validity of the feedback contained in the note.

Real change in behavior, regardless of who is receiving it, is more likely to come from a delivery that is sincere and made in a respectful way.  In other words, be real and say it the way you would personally want to receive that type of message.  So, although you need to finesse them a little differently,  I stick to the same three techniques you would use for a colleague.  They are:

Be Direct-

Frame your feedback in the ‘Compliment- Concern- Question’ format.  Give the leader a sincere compliment on a behavior.  Then, state your concern.  Wrap it up with a question that asks the leader for their help in resolving the situation. The approach might sound like this, “Sir. I would like to talk with you for a moment. I’ve noticed you like to come to my cube each afternoon to talk with me about _________(insert sport, politics, or whatever topic here).   I really enjoy being able to have those conversations with you.  One concern I have though is that I am not going to be timely in meeting deadlines you set if I don’t focus on the project at hand.  Can you help me prioritize being able to meet your expectations, yet still have time for casual interactions?”

By framing your feedback in this way, you are still being direct and communicating that the leader’s behavior is the distraction.  You are also communicating that you want to do a good job and meet the leader’s deadlines and expectations. Finally, you are finessing the situation so that you’re asking the leader to LEAD you and guide you to the solution.  You are not coming on so strong that you are telling the leader what to do.  This is a good strategy to get your point across and still allow the leader to save face.  It can even work for more serious feedback when you disagree with a decision the leader has made.  By framing it with the Compliment- Concern- Question format, you can raise your concern without putting the leader on the defensive.

Don’t bring other people into it-

Don’t feel obligated to be the speaker for the group.  Even if other people have this issue, the second you tell the leader, “Sir, everyone on the team says…..”, you have just shut that leader’s mind down from hearing the rest of the sentence.  They are now in “human” mode and their brain is wondering who is talking about them behind their back.  Keep your feedback direct and speak on your own behalf.

Use your voice/ avoid e-mail-

This goes back to avoiding the indirect approach.  Your message may not have the tone you think it does and the message will not likely have the impact you’re desiring.  You can’t determine when the leader reads that message and it may not be the ideal time for them to receive it.  By saying the feedback out loud, directly to the leader, you are in control of the tone of your message as well as the timing of the delivery.

I once had a leader I respected tell me to give it to him straight when it came to feedback.  He’d tell me, “I’m just a guy.”  As a young woman at the time, it was  a good lesson to learn and since then, I’ve always thought of those in the C-suite in that way. They are human.  They want feedback like the rest of us and want it delivered in a respectful, direct way. I’m not saying it will be an easy conversation, but I guarantee that the leader will respect you more for having the conversation.

What do you think?  Do you have any examples to share?