In Training Magazine’s July/August 2013 issue, Consensus’ Constructive Criticism for Managers article provides tips for managing up.

Constructive Criticism for Managers

Our organization touts the value of “coaching up”, yet our employees find it difficult to give their managers constructive feedback. What does one do when it’s the boss that needs coaching in a certain area? How can a direct report achieve the results they want?

In order for coaching up to be maximally embraced and effective, employees should begin by getting their manager’s buy-in.

Explain Your Motivation

Start by sharing the reasons for wanting to engage the coaching process. Company policy memos that underscore the importance of coaching-up help avoid possible misinterpretation of employee motives – the direct report simply wants to conform to policy and to improve workplace performance, rather than to express their gripes.

Get Their Point of View

Find out the manager’s view and definition of coaching-up. What are their expectations? In their opinion, what is the best way for criticism and advice to be delivered, e.g, in the moment vs. afterwards in a moment of calm. The employee also should share their own views, definitions, and expectations with their manager, and the two parties should have a meeting of the minds on these things before any coaching is rendered.

Unfortunately, some managers simply are not receptive to coaching. If, after having the exploratory conversation, it becomes clear that this manager is not open to feedback and advice from those junior to them, the direct report might be wise to turn their energies elsewhere.

However, a growing number of managers are open to feedback from their direct reports, aware that they can learn from just about anyone in the organization, and, in turn, become even better leaders. In these situations, direct reports have an opportunity, if not responsibility, to help their bosses and organizations improve.

Be Sensitive

Like with any coaching situation, the coach should be sensitive. And like all coachees, supervisors have feelings and vulnerabilities, so care must be taken when delivering any feedback that might be interpreted critically. Express empathy, and avoid using the word, “but”; instead, use “and”. For example, “I know that you were under a lot of pressure to get the report done in time for the meeting. And, I think that, even in those times of crisis, there could be a better way of communicating.”

Be careful to avoid globalizing a behavior and characterizing it as a pattern. For example, if the supervisor is generally good at time management, but runs up against the clock for meetings outside of the office, be sure to focus the feedback on both the general rule as well as on the subject of criticism, e.g., “While you’re generally very good at time management, it seems that you risk being late for those meetings.” It is important that the coach separate these things in their mind, as well, so that their feedback is on point and best received.

Give Examples

Give examples, and use specific data whenever possible. Once the example and data are shared, ask the supervisor how they understand the data/how they explain the example. They might see things very differently, or they might have additional data that could affect the assessment and feedback.

Introduce ideas of how you can help the manager get better – how you can function as their coach. Remember, coaching is more than offering feedback. It should also involve taking part in the solution. Also, ask the supervisor for their ideas of how you someone could be a most effective coach for them.

Last, be sure to check in to see if the coaching is working. If it isn’t achieving the desired results, it might be time to sit down with the manager and analyze what’s standing in the way and to explore other options for improving the behavior.

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