ask a boss

‘My Terrible Boss Asked for Feedback. Should I Be Honest?’

Photo: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

My boss, Kate, has asked for feedback. The thing is … she is not a good manager. She doesn’t respond to questions asking for feedback or our requests for documents that we need to complete our work. Then she throws a temper tantrum because we didn’t do X thing in the way that she wanted (which we would have if she had responded to our requests for feedback in the first place). She doesn’t read comments made in Word documents, so I have to call her and talk through each individual one. That is, when I can get ahold of her, because she’s almost impossible to reach. On the other hand, she also loves having long, unnecessary calls (anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours) that could have been just an email or a text message.

She also doesn’t want to deal with any administrative duties. That means that when our admin team needs information, they will contact me instead of her, which requires my going back to her to get answers for them. She will whine about how she doesn’t care about whatever the thing is, which leaves me unable to answer the admin team, which then keeps following up.

Kate recently sent our team a form asking for feedback about herself. The feedback will not be anonymous. How do I approach this? Should I be honest in a way that could lead to positive changes that would benefit our working relationship, or should I just tell her that she’s awesome at everything to keep her happy? My work situation is very precarious — I am on a short contract that can be cut with no notice, so if she gets pissed off, that could be it. And I would be beyond screwed, as my legal residence depends on this job, and going back home to my country is not an option. 

Obviously, I would not phrase my feedback in a rude way if I decided to be honest, but I don’t even know if she’s a reasonable enough person for this to be  something that it makes sense for me to be considering at all.

You are under no obligation to put yourself at professional risk to satisfy Kate’s desire for feedback.

Here’s the thing about managers soliciting feedback from their teams: The ones who truly want it and will use it well make a point of demonstrating repeatedly over time that it is safe for their teams to be honest with them. They do that by regularly inviting dissent, welcoming opinions that are different from their own, and thanking people who speak up when they disagree. They don’t blow up or throw tantrums when they hear something they don’t like. They deal with people directly, fairly, and transparently. And even then, the smart ones know some people still won’t provide candid feedback to a manager because of the power dynamics at play, so they go out of their way to make it safe — like by arranging for feedback to be truly anonymous and explaining how the input they receive will be used, or by arranging for it to be given to a third party instead of directly to them.

This … doesn’t sound like Kate. She doesn’t sound like the Absolute Worst, but she’s clearly not a good manager, and she hasn’t put the effort in to create conditions that would make people feel comfortable being direct with her. And it’s just not reasonable to expect employees to provide feedback without that foundation in place. I frequently talk with people whose managers swear up and down that they want feedback but then, when they get it, become defensive, upset, angry, or even openly hostile — to the point that it affects what it’s like to work together. For those managers, I welcome feedback really means “I enjoy hearing that you like working for me.” Or maybe, “You can offer me a small, eminently fixable problem that doesn’t reflect on me personally.” They’re not looking for substantive critical input.

It doesn’t always go that way, of course! As I say, there are bosses out there who truly do welcome constructive criticism, who won’t become upset or defensive, and who will use that info to make changes in how they operate. The problem is that as an employee, the risk to you is high if you misjudge the type of manager you’re dealing with. And given the differences in power between employees and managers — and that your income depends on their looking favorably on you — you can’t be expected to take that gamble without some significant work on your boss’s side to establish that it’s safe to do so.

Which is a shame, because it sounds like Kate could really benefit from some feedback! And that’s the frustrating reality of how this usually works: the managers who most need to hear candid input from their teams are, for the reasons above, the ones least likely to get it.

Even more frustratingly, sometimes managers like Kate do handle the feedback well. Maybe, if you filled out that form honestly, she would appreciate your candor, give genuine thought to your perspective, and even make some changes. But she hasn’t done anything to show you that, so it’s not a wise risk to take. That’s true in general, but it’s especially true for you, because you’re dependent on her good will to keep you both employed and in the country. The price will be especially high for you if you miscalculate.

So how should you respond to the form she sent? You don’t need to make your responses all sunshine and rainbows, but given the precariousness of your situation, err on the side of positivity. You probably can pick one or two things that would make your working life better and talk about those; just word them carefully. Opt for things that you don’t think she’d profoundly disagree with and which she could in theory fix without revamping her entire personality. But this isn’t the time for a full inventory.

For what it’s worth, this entire dynamic is why it’s so important for managers who supervise other managers to cultivate their own credibility and build trust with people several rungs below them. Smart higher-level managers will periodically solicit feedback about the managers who work for them from teams several levels down, and that can be an opportunity to share your real assessment — but once again, it won’t work unless that higher-level boss has done the groundwork to assure you it’s safe to be honest.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Terrible Boss Asked for Feedback. Should I Be Honest?’