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80% of Workers See Faults in Their Boss, Yet Most Say Nothing

By Daniel B. Kline - Updated Apr 17, 2019 at 11:03AM

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Feedback usually only goes in one direction at the office.

Most bosses have a system for sharing feedback and constructive criticism with the employees who report directly to them, perhaps in the form of quarterly reviews, weekly meetings, or daily dialogue about the lower worker's job performance. However, most workers don't have the same avenues through which to share useful critiques of their boss.

This is a real problem for bosses, because instead of hearing about what they're doing wrong and how to improve, they remain unaware and their flaws become an open secret in the office. Most workers (80%) said they shared an open secret -- an issue readily discussed with peers in the office but not directly with the boss -- about their manager, in a study of 1,335 employees by VitalSmarts, a leadership training company.

Two woman are talking at a large table.

Constructive criticism needs to go both ways, but often times it doesn't. Image source: Getty Images.

Why is the boss not looped in?

In a well-run office, feedback from the boss to employees is a positive process. The boss shares areas where the worker can improve, while also pointing out and appreciating their progress. It's constructive for the worker, and ideally it makes the whole company stronger.

It's more challenging when it comes to delivering feedback to the boss or manager, partly because of the power dynamic of the relationship. A manager holds significant power over their employees' paychecks, lives in and out of the office, and career trajectories. It's nice to hope that a boss would not meet a well-intentioned critique with retaliation, but the possibility is always there, worrying some workers enough to stay silent when it comes to feedback. 

Retaliation isn't actually the top reason, though it's high, on the list of reasons why workers don't speak up when it comes to sharing critiques with their manager:

  1. Saying something would offend their manager (47%)
  2. Being open would cause their boss to retaliate (41%)
  3. They don't know how to bring it up (41%)
  4. Sharing a critique would hurt their career (39%)
  5. The office culture doesn't support people who speak up (38%)

"The health of any organization, team, or relationship is a function of the average lag time between when people identify and discuss problems," said Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability. "In healthy teams, when people see something they say something. In weak teams, performance problems, concerns, and errors remain unchecked and as a result, erode results and relationships."

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How can companies and employers solicit manager feedback?

Ideally, your boss is enlightened and not only wants to hear your criticism, but they embrace what you have to say by making appropriate changes. Of course, that doesn't typically happen, which is a failure by companies that don't foster two-way feedback.

It's important to prevent retaliation however you choose to approach this. A bigger company is able to solicit opinions on bosses' performances across the company through their human resources department, and then share results with the respective managers without identifying who said what, to prevent retaliation. At smaller companies, it can be a challenge to anonymize feedback.

As a boss, you can start by regularly asking your direct reports this question: "We've talked about you, now tell me what I can do better?" It's a simple invitation for feedback, but employees may be afraid to answer you with serious criticism, at least the first few times you ask. Even if you get mild feedback, accept it graciously, and incorporate changes to show your willingness.

It all comes down to demonstrating to your team that feedback is a two-way loop, that requires respect. Management has to take the lead by showing their employees that improvement isn't just something for lower level workers, but it's a goal at every level of the company.

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