Work Relationships

How to Criticize Your Boss Without Losing Your Job

Written by Peter Jones

Feedback, as any good professional understands, is critically important. There’s nothing like a little constructive criticism to put the fire under your tail feathers and help you to understand and grow past your own limitations. But it isn’t just a one-way street. From time to time, it will be important—even necessary—to give your boss a little feedback too. You should want the kind of employee/boss relationship where that is possible—and work to cultivate it.

Here are a few strategies for when you need to offer a little good-natured criticism to your boss without offending him or her or risking your good rapport.

1. Pick your moment.

If your boss is in the middle of a particularly stressful project or a bad week, you might want to wait until she’s not stomping around fuming with the shortest possible fuse. Let things die down a bit and pick a more peaceful, low-key moment to broach the subject. But do make sure to do it face-to-face. Meeting in person is a much better way to make the kind of connection you need for this to work.

2. Ask permission.

Particularly if you have a more formal relationship with your boss, or you’re nervous about how to broach the subject, it’s always a good idea to ask first. A simple, “Would you be willing to hear a different perspective on the situation?” or “Could I offer my two cents?” will work wonders and set the conversation up nicely.

3. Keep it light.

In this and all office interactions, stay positive. If humor is in your wheelhouse, try a humorous tone if appropriate. Avoid profanity and offensive jokes though; keep it professional. Be playful and as gracious and appreciative as possible. And try to limit your use of the word “but.” As in: “I really enjoy working with you but…

4. Back it up.

Don’t just assume your ideas are great and worth sharing—better than your boss’s. Support your ideas with facts about production or productivity. And then make sure that your feedback will genuinely help the person. The more you can make it valuable to your boss, the better.

5. Make it about you.

“You” statements tend to make people extra defensive. Try to frame everything through your point of view. “I notice this…” “It affected me when…” And try not to generalize with words like “always” or “never.” Think about how an improved relationship would make you a better worker, and explain this, point-by-point, to your boss. If you frame it as “for the good of the company,” you’re more likely to get a positive response.

6. Go in with a game plan.

Think through what you’re going to say in advance. The more you plan it out, the better. And find a friend or family member to rehearse it with beforehand. The cooler and more prepared you are going in, the better it will go. If you storm in right on the heels of an annoying email interaction, you’re bound to say something you will later regret.

7. Know when to stop.

Say what you have to say as quickly, gracefully, and succinctly as you can—then stop. It can be hard, once you get started, to turn the faucet off—particularly if this is the first time you’ve tried giving feedback to your boss. But you’ll need to make sure to quit while you’re ahead and give room for your boss to respond. And try to listen with an open mind! The communication lines, at last, are open.

About the author

Peter Jones