Top tips for delivering upward feedback

Giving your boss feedback, commonly called upward feedback, can be a tricky process to master. However, if offered correctly and thoughtfully, your insight can not only help your boss, but also improve your working relationship. Here are some tips to consider.

The relationship comes first. The ability to give and receive upward feedback is dependent on the relationship and level of trust between you and your boss. Before giving feedback, you need to gauge whether your boss will be open to what you have to say. If you know that your boss is unreceptive to feedback, is likely to react negatively, or if you have a rocky relationship, it’s better not to say anything. However, if your boss is open-minded and you have a good relationship, you owe them the straight talk. As with any feedback, your intentions must be good and your desire to help your boss is paramount.

Ask first. If you’re unsure if your boss is open to candid feedback, ask them. Feedback can result in learning, and everyone should be open to learning, no matter his or her position. Hopefully your boss will say yes, and that will make giving the feedback a little easier. If you get the feeling your manager isn’t wild about receiving upward feedback, look for anonymous ways to share your thoughts, such as a 360-feedback process.

Make your feedback timely. Ideally, you want to give feedback as soon as you can and in an appropriate setting after something has happened. After that, details can get fuzzy. If you can’t get together to talk soon after the situation, write down what happened - in detail - so that when you are able to meet, you can quickly recall events accurately.

Be specific. For feedback to be effective and have an impact, make sure it’s specific. For example, “When you brief me on a project, it would be more helpful to give me the goals and desired outcomes instead of a list of tasks you want me to complete. I can figure those things out on my own,” is better than saying, “I don’t like how you give project briefs.” The second isn’t actionable and doesn’t give your manager insight on how to change or improve.

Choose your delivery method carefully. Although email or instant messenger is tempting, it’s best to talk face to face when giving feedback. It might be awkward and more difficult than just typing up your suggestions and hitting send, but having a real conversation will ensure the message you want to deliver is the one received. Body language often says more than spoken words; if you go into the meeting with a smile and relaxed manner, you can start things off with the right tone. And if you see your manager getting tense, you can adjust your tone and clarify your words so that the conversation stays meaningful. 

When your boss bites back. No matter how thoughtfully you’ve prepared and delivered your feedback, your boss may get upset or be defensive about the feedback you’ve given. If you were asked for the feedback, you should hold your ground and explain that you were doing what was asked of you. Sometimes reframing the feedback can help. Often feedback is more easily received if you frame it in terms of what your boss cares about. 

When in doubt, hold your tongue. If you’re not sure if your boss wants to hear feedback or if the subject of the feedback is a sensitive one, it’s almost always better to not speak up. There is no reason to risk your working relationship or your job, unless you feel your boss’s behaviour is putting the organisation or your unit in jeopardy. Instead, look for opportunities to give anonymous feedback, such as a 360-degree feedback process.

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Are you delivering feedback as well as you could be?

If you asked 1000 managers what they considered to be the most difficult part of their job, “delivering job-performance feedback” is certain to be one of the top three responses.

Why is it so hard to tell our employees that they’re doing something that’s not working, and needs to change?

Fear of others’ reactions, saying the wrong thing or being labelled a “bully” are common reasons why managers are reluctant to give feedback. Such fears combined with differences in personality and work styles, perspectives and cultural backgrounds can lead to uncomfortable and unproductive feedback situations. In fact, in an extensive literature review Denisi and Kluger (2000) found that in more than one-third of cases, performance feedback actually resulted in decreased performance across the 131 studies analysed.

Despite these challenges, helping employees improve job performance on an ongoing basis is a key responsibility of successful managers. When feedback is delivered well, the benefits are significant not only for the employee, but for the manager and the organisation. So, it’s important to get it right. The following tips will help you deliver feedback more effectively in the workplace.

1. Get the focus right

The feedback you deliver at work should focus on:

a) Job performance and actions. This concerns competency, that is, whether or not the person is capably performing specific tasks assigned.
b) Observable work behaviours. This concerns the way in which tasks are performed, for example, whether the person arrives on time, works cooperatively or speaks courteously and respectfully to others.

Feedback that falls outside these categories, such as statements about someone’s attitude or personal characteristics, can lead to negative outcomes for both parties.

2. Follow a few simple feedback tips

Tip 1 - Create the right environment. Feedback is best delivered in person and in a private setting.

Tip 2 - Provide constructive feedback. Feedback conversations should benefit the recipient, not allow you to vent your frustrations. If you can't think of a constructive purpose for giving feedback, don't give it. Make sure there is a dialogue and not a monologue. Ensure the recipient leaves the conversation knowing exactly what action to take next.

Tip 3 - Deliver feedback in a timely way. Give feedback as soon after the event as possible. This prevents bottling up of bad feelings about the person’s performance. It also flags the issue or problem at the time it occurs, when the details are fresh in everyone’s minds.

Tip 4 - Talk about feedback in specific terms. Be factual in your discussion and cite specific examples or instances. For example: “I noticed there were several calculation errors in last month’s report”. Focus on the action and the impact.

Tip 5 - Focus on description rather than judgement. Describing behaviour is a way of reporting what has occurred, while judging behaviour is an evaluation of what has occurred in terms of "right or wrong", or "good or bad". By avoiding evaluative language, you reduce the need for the individual to respond defensively.

Tip 6 - Offer suggestions for improvement. If the objective of your feedback discussion is to improve performance, then come equipped with specific suggestions on what the person can do to affect that change. Engage them in coming up with solutions that they can buy into, by asking questions and seeking their thoughts and ideas. If you don’t get buy-in, change will not happen.

3. Follow the steps to effectively deliver the feedback

Step 1 – Be clear about the purpose of your feedback. Indicate what you'd like to cover and why it's important. This focused statement keeps the other person from having to guess what you want to talk about. For example: "I have a concern about…" or "I feel I need to let you know…"

Step 2 – Describe specifically what you have observed. Say when and where it happened, who was involved, and what the results were. Stick to what you personally observed and don't try to speak for others. Avoid talking vaguely about what the person "always" or "usually" does. For example: "Yesterday afternoon, when you were speaking with Sally, I noticed that you kept raising your voice."

Step 3 – Describe your reactions. Give examples of how you and others are affected. When you describe your reactions or the consequences of the observed behaviours, the other person can better appreciate the impact their actions are having on others and on the organisation or team as a whole. For example: "Sally looked embarrassed and I felt uncomfortable about seeing the episode. Shouting at our people is not acceptable behaviour in this department."

Step 4 – Give the other person an opportunity to respond. Indicate that you are waiting for an answer. Remain silent to allow them to answer. For example: "What is your view of this situation?" "What is your reaction to this?" “Tell me, what are your thoughts?"

Step 5 – Offer specific suggestions. Whenever possible make your suggestions helpful. Offering suggestions shows that you have thought past your evaluations and moved to how to improve the situation. Even if people are working up to expected standards, they often benefit from ideas that could help them to perform better. For example: "Jill, rather than telling Ed that you're not interested in all the details, you might try asking him specific questions about the information you are most interested in.”

Step 6 – Summarise and express your support. Review the major points you discussed. Summarise the action items, not the negative points of the other person's behaviour. This summary is an opportunity to show your support for the other person - a way to conclude a possibly negative feedback situation on a positive note. For example: "At least we understand each other better since we've talked. I'll do what I can to make sure your priorities are factored into the schedule, and I'll expect you to come straight to me if the schedule is a problem.”

While it may seem like an added, challenging responsibility to a manager’s already "full plate", managers who provide ongoing and effective feedback against established goals and objectives are actually making their job easier. So, it’s worth investing the time and effort to get it right.

If you or your team are grappling with giving effective feedback or you'd like a fresh perspective about how to help your team move forward, contact Best Practice Consulting today at One of our experienced team can deliver training to increase staff capabilities, maximise staff effectiveness and help your organisation reach its goals. 

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What makes a successful leader?

Even the most cursory review of leadership theory and research over the past century is likely to make your head spin. On one hand, some managers probably think that the myriad of approaches to effective leadership means theory has failed to answer the million-dollar question “what makes a great leader?” After all, how is a practicing manager expected to make sense of all these theories?

One the other hand, other managers have embraced what is most useful to them from the theory, even though it might not be definitive, and achieved extraordinary results. In short, leadership theories have a lot to offer aspiring and existing leaders. Let’s take a closer look.

Traits and leadership

Supporters of trait theory, which emerged in the early 20th century, claim leaders are different to non-leaders, because they possess certain innate character traits.

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1996) identify six traits which make leaders differ from non-leaders, including:

  • Drive;
  • The desire to achieve;
  • Honesty/integrity;
  • Self-confidence;
  • Cognitivemability; and
  • Knowledge of the business.

Other, less important traits include charisma, creativity/originality and flexibility.

Similarly, Dubrin, Dalgleish and Miller (2006) draw together the vast collection of traits associated with this theory into two distinct categories:  general personality traits and task-related personality traits.  General personality traits contribute to success in a work and personal context and include:

  • Self-confidence;
  • Trustworthiness;
  • Extroversion;
  • Assertiveness;
  • Emotional stability;
  • Enthusiasm;
  • Sense of humour
  • Warmth; and
  • A high tolerance for frustration.

Task-related personality traits are associated with task accomplishment and include:

  • Courage;
  • Locus of control;
  • Passion;
  • Emotional intelligence;
  • Flexibility; and
  • Adaptability.

A significant body of evidence exists to show that traits do matter. For example, studies by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) and Goleman (1998) show leaders are different from non-leaders and traits do have a consistent impact on leader effectiveness.

Still, many authors have criticised the trait approach to leadership for being too simplistic. It does not tell us which traits are the most important in which situations, or the amount of the trait required. Nor is there universal agreement amongst trait theorists as to which traits contribute to effective leadership.

At this point, the behavioural and contingency theories of leadership come in to play.

Behavioural and Contingency theories of leadership

The behavioural school of thought endorses the idea that successful organisational leaders routinely exhibit certain behaviours.  This main impact of this theory, when it emerged in the 1950s, was the notion that leadership was not necessarily an inborn trait but a methodology that could be taught to employees. What a great relief this was for the many aspiring leaders out there concerned they lacked the right character traits to be successful!

Following a 25-year longitudinal study at Harvard University, Kouzes and Posner found that exemplary leaders demonstrate five (5) core practices:

Model the Way

Actions speak louder than words: ''Leaders' deeds are far more important than their words...Exemplary leaders go first. They go first by setting the example through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their beliefs.'' Exemplary leaders have a philosophy about their organisation, leadership and teamwork. They know what their own values are, particularly around how people are treated.

Inspire a shared vision

If you view leading as a journey, vision is simply the destination you want others to join you in pursuing. Leaders cannot expect to be followed if they have no idea where they want to go. Exemplary leaders envision the future, dreaming how they would like it to be. When that vision is clear to them, they can communicate it enthusiastically to those whose buy-in they need.

Challenge the process

Being a leader entails initiating ''a change from the status quo”. Effective leaders are always experimenting with new ways of doing things, searching for “opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve”. According to Kouzes and Posner, ''the leader's primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system to get new products...adopted''.

Enable others to act

This practice acknowledges that successful leadership and accomplishments are not the result of a single person. Effective leaders listen to ideas, treat people with respect, foster teamwork and collaboration, and encourage others to exceed their own expectations. A high level of trust exists and people have the freedom to make mistakes, rectify these and drive success.

Encourage and recognise

Successful leaders know that colleagues require and deserve recognition and celebration. Effective leaders find innovative ways to celebrate goals that are reached, and encourage and motivate teams and individuals. This practice fosters a strong sense of community.


The contingency (or situational) theory of leadership acknowledges the interaction between a leader’s traits, a leader’s behaviours and the situation in which the leader is leading.

History shows us that leaders can lose power and influence as the situation changes, for example, Winston Churchill in a victorious Britain immediately after World War II. The same applies to leaders in organisations.  Applying a certain set of traits and behaviours in one organisational context might lead to great success. Try the same approach in a different organisational setting or situation, where employees have different needs or environmental factors have shifted, and the same leader might fail miserably.

So, what does this all mean in terms of effective leadership? And are we any further along the path to understanding what makes a successful leader?

I think so. What the broad and varied body of theory and research on leadership tells us is that there are many appropriate ways to lead or styles of leadership. Traits are important. But traits alone are not sufficient for successful organisational leadership. Leaders who possess the requisite traits must behave in a certain way and take certain actions to be successful. And there’s one more important point.

What makes a good leader truly outstanding is a deep understanding of their traits and behavioural preferences and the ability to adapt their leadership approach to suit the specific organisational context and circumstances they find themselves in at any given time. Put simply, great leaders understand that “one size doesn’t fit all”. They think about the culture of their organisation, the characteristics of their followers (or team) and the external environment, and shape their style and behaviour accordingly.

If you are looking for ways to improve your personal and professional effectiveness or take your leadership performance to the next level, Best Practice Consulting can help you. Contact us today at

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