Criticise! But with a sugar coating.

It’s not easy to give feedback to your boss. If he doesn’t like it, he may just fire you. But Jana Niemann knows exactly how to do it. This Thursday she defends her thesis on the question how to give and receive feedback.

What was your main research question?

‘Actually, that’s very easy to answer. It was: ‘What is the best way to tell your powerful boss he’s stupid?’ In the past I’ve studied many meetings between work coaches and employees, and the one thing that always came up was how do I tell my boss he is doing something wrong without him getting angry, instead of him acting on the information.’

Why would you want to do that in the first place? You’ll get fired!

‘Well, by stupid I mean that an employee might think that his or her boss could handle certain things better. It’s about giving feedback to your boss about his or her behaviour or competences.’

That’s not so difficult, is it?

‘Yes it is! Employees worry a lot about how to give their boss feedback without it being perceived as a personal, negative attack. Many of them are afraid to express their opinion, even when their boss specifically asks for feedback. But negative feedback will have negative consequences because it undermines the boss’s ego, especially powerful people who have a very positive image of themselves, much more so than most employees, and don’t like it at all when this image is challenged.’

Big egos

Are you sure this is true of Dutch bosses? We are known for our directness; surely we are better at taking criticism than other nationalities?

‘Erm, sorry, no. Dutch people don’t like to be criticized either and powerful people have big egos.

How do you know?

‘We did an experiment using students. We put them in a situation where some had power and some didn’t. Then we gave them negative feedback and afterwards surveyed their emotional responses. The survey showed that the group with power got angry with the person when the feedback was direct, but less angry when it was constructive and slightly sugar-coated. Those students without power felt negative no matter how the negative remarks were delivered. We found the same thing in a survey among managers.

Why is feedback so important?

‘It’s crucial for organizations to function well. How else is a boss to know what really happens on the work floor and what his employees need from him to function better?

As a matter of fact, the Human Resources department of our own University has just implemented a new assessment system – the so-called ‘R&O gesprekken’, Result and Development Interviews – in which feedback from the employee on his or her superior is an important part of the procedure.’

Some are human

But shouldn’t a good boss just be able to take some negative feedback? After all, the boss has the power, so what can happen?

‘Well, bosses are human, just like employees, and nobody likes criticism. But you’re right, some bosses handle it a lot better than others.’

What’s the difference?

‘In particular powerful bosses who are emotionally unstable are very sensitive to negative feedback. We interviewed a large group of managers – anonymously via an online survey – about how negative feedback made them feel and to what extent they perceived the feedback as personal. Unstable managers got angry with the person who provided the feedback and rated this person as less nice and less competent. Also, unstable managers were less inclined to accept feedback.

What can be done? Just sucking up to the boss and otherwise keeping your mouth shut seems the best advice.

‘That may be the case for the individual employee, but is not necessarily in the best interests of the team and the organization. Therefore, one of my conclusions is that supervisors should be trained in how to deal with feedback.’