“We need to talk and it’s going to be uncomfortable” –
why criticism is risky

So you’ve noticed your boss behaving irrationally, irresponsibly or just plain badly. It’s not just a ‘one off’ – there’s a repeating pattern.

His emotional intelligence seems to have evaporated and he's got no idea of the damage he's doing. You can no longer ignore it, hoping it will go away. It’s time for one of those critical conversations.

But there’s a few problems:

  1. No matter how well you sugar-coat it, criticism is confronting.
  2. Regardless of how well you get on, there is an unavoidable power difference.
  3. Remember this is your truth and it's not the only truth

Even if you’re great friends outside work, at work he/she ‘outranks’ you, making the criticism inherently awkward and uncomfortable.

Criticising your manager has the potential to be severely career limiting. Yet your integrity, loyalty and sense of justice mean you can't watch on silently, waiting for it to stop.

What would you do if you were Sally or Bob?

When There's a Difficult Conversation Brewing...

#1: Your Manager is Becoming Impossible to Work With

Sally’s boss was becoming increasingly irrational and unreasonable with his team. His poor behaviour cast a black shadow over the office and everyone was feeling the stress.

Frustration, tears and long coffee breaks were becoming frequent as nothing they did seemed right.  Many team members were taking regular sick days, putting extra pressure on those who were stoically putting up with his demands.

After a particularly tense team meeting where their boss ranted, thumped the table and issued unreasonable, bizarre directives, the mood was sombre as the team headed towards the lift.

As soon as the doors closed (out of earshot), one colleague burst into tears whilst the other two could no longer contain their fury – ‘What’s his problem?’ ‘How does he think he can treat us like that and get away with it?’ ‘I can’t stand this, I’ve had enough and I’m out of here!’

Whilst Sally understood these responses, she also knew the extreme pressure their boss was under. The CEO had him ‘under the pump’ to deliver a complex project in a very tight time frame and he was driving his team to deliver.

Sally knew her boss well and thought he was reasonably emotionally intelligent.  Yet, he seemed unaware of the negative impact his behaviour was having on the team. As the Director, she also believed it was her responsibility to say something.

#2: Your Manager is Behaving Irresponsibly

Meanwhile, Bob was rapidly losing respect for his manager. When everyone else was cutting back, he felt the significant expense of ‘executive junkets’ could be better spent.

After reluctantly following an odd directive she'd issued, his team missed a critical project deadline. He was summoned to explain to the CEO, later discovering that his manager directly blamed him, neatly avoiding any responsibility.

Soon after, Bob noticed his manager having frequent lunches with their company's main competitor and wondered about the nature of their conversations. No fire burns faster than office gossip and as others also noticed and began discussing their senior manager's behaviour, Bob decided he had to speak up.

Having worked together for many years, Bob believed there was enough trust and mutual respect. He knew his manager prided herself on her self-awareness, yet seemed unaware of what others were seeing, believing and saying about her.

If you’ve ever had to decide whether to initiate one of those awkward conversations, you’ve no doubt experienced sleepless nights! It's natural to worry about the risks and consequences and agonise over how best to approach it.

Regardless of how carefully you prepare and communicate, you can never be sure how it will be received. Now's the time to turn up your own emotional intelligence.

7 Vital Considerations for Difficult Conversations

1:  You Can't Unring a Bell

Once you’ve delivered the feedback and engaged in a sensitive discussion, there’s no going backwards. You can’t take back what you’ve said and it will always be part of your relationship in the future.

Be prepared to explain your beliefs and seek to understand your manager's response.  His/her reality may be very different from yours which means your perspective  may or may not be accepted .

2:  Check for Assumptions

How do you know it’s true? Assuming you are privy to all the relevant information is dangerous. Regardless of what’s true for you, it may hold little or no ‘truth’ for your manager.

Allegations are serious. Check your facts. Provide multiple, irrefutable examples and beware the temptation to generalise. It’s unlikely the behaviour happens ‘all the time’.

Don’t assume your colleagues are impacted in the same way as you. Share what you’ve observed and how the behaviour is affecting you, rather than talking for ‘everyone’.

3:  Are You the Best Person to Be The Messenger?

Receiving critical feedback from a direct report may be inappropriate, particularly if your organisation is traditional and hierarchical.

Your boss may be embarrassed by unexpected and unsolicited feedback from you. He/she may feel less exposed, vulnerable and unsafe, hearing it from a highly trusted peer.

4:  Act with Honest Intent and Withold Judgement

Be honest about why you feel the need to have such a delicate conversation. Are you acting with your manager’s best interests at heart or do you just want to see him/her squirm?

Remember, it’s likely to be one or more of YOUR values their behaviour has violated.

Witholding judgement will help you deliver your criticism in a calm, confident and respectful way reducing the need to explain, justify or defend.

5:  Decide the Outcome You Want and Prepare Carefully

What do you expect your manager to do with the feedback? He/she can respond in a wide variety of ways and it’s wise to be ready for all of them.

You may be asked why you felt the need or have the right to share this unwanted news.

Seek guidance from a trusted, colleague, HR advisor or coach – someone you know will maintain confidentiality.

6:  Know and Respect the Boundaries

Even if your manager listens and takes what you’re telling them on board, it’s not your job to ‘fix’ him/her.  This critical conversation differs from performance management of a direct report, where you have a role in supporting improvement.

What your manager does with your critical feedback is entirely his/her decision. If he/she wants your help, they'll ask for it. Deliver your feedback sensitively and stay within the appropriate boundary of your role.

7:  Decide How YOU Need to BE

Having decided what you need to do, booked a private meeting room and planned what you’re going to say, the most important consideration is choosing the most effective way to ‘be’.

Judgement, anger and hostile criticism are likely to evoke a ‘fight or flight’ response. Better alternatives are genuine respect, openness and empathy.

So, what happened to Sally and Bob?

Same Situation, Two Very Different Outcomes

For Sally, the conversation went well. Her manager was stunned and had no idea that his stress was so obvious and having such a negative impact. He thanked Sally for having the courage to speak up and immediately sought help.

He apologised to his team, acknowledged that he’d been making life difficult for them and became super aware of how he was coming across. His trust in Sally increased significantly and he regularly sought her out to give him a pulse check on how he was doing.

When Sally later applied for a promotion with a different division, her boss gave her a glowing endorsement. He openly talked about her professionalism, honesty and sensitivity.

Bob’s, feedback to his boss didn’t go so well. Whilst she listened and considered what he said, she rejected it as ‘untrue’ and out of line.

Trust shattered, continuing to work together became awkward and untenable.

Within 3 months, Bob transferred to another department. Fortunately he was aware this may happen and although disappointed, he was prepared.

Wiser for the experience he doesn’t regret speaking up. On reflection, he believes he may modify the way he approaches a similar sticky situation in the future and is proud he had the courage to honour his values.

Both found  Executive Coaching valuable for navigating their awkward conversations. While their outcomes were different, what happened was ultimately the same ...

When You Criticise Your Boss, The Relationship WILL Change

It will either be strengthened or weakened.

The decision to go ahead is yours and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

Decide to act or make peace with the situation, knowing it will eventually change.

Regardless, deepening your self-awareness (the first component of Emotional Intelligence) will help you master the art and skill of sensitive communication.

Take the How Self-Aware Are You Quiz below to see how aware you really are!

Greater insight could be the difference between criticism success and failure .

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron
About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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