The Look & Sound of Leadership Podcast header

Hosted by Tom Henschel

Delivering Upward Feedback


August 2020

A leader feels the team would benefit if her boss could change some behaviors. She and her coach discuss a three-step model for a learning conversation that might achieve the desired result.

Explore past episodes! >


August 2020

Delivering Upward Feedback

Tom Henschel

Asking the boss to change

Julie wanted to give her boss, Zuwena, some feedback. Knowing Julie’s devotion to Zuwena, I was curious to hear the situation.

Julie said, “She has this habit of thinking out loud in meetings. She’ll say something like, ‘We ought to look into the regulations on that.’ And then she keeps talking. Some of us think it’s just Zuwena thinking out loud. If she really wanted us to do anything, she’d tell us.”

She continued, “But sometimes, a couple weeks later, she’ll ask about whatever it was. And then someone – usually me! – has to say, ‘Uh, gee, Zuwena, sorry. We didn’t know we were supposed to do anything.’”

“Yikes,” I said with a little cringe. “How does that go over?”

“Sometimes she lets it go. But sometimes she throws a little fit. And people are angry about it. They don’t like her blaming them for a problem they think she created.”

“Are the angry folks asking you to give this feedback to Zuwena?”

“No, they’re not. At least not yet. But I’m closest to her. If anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be me. But, no, they’re not asking. I want to do it because no good can come from people being angry at her.”

“So what do you want to tell her, Julie?”

“I want to tell her to stop using staff meetings to think out loud. Or when she does, make it clear it’s just one of her streams of consciousness.”

“Wow. Could she do that? That sounds like a difficult thing to do,” I said.

“I know!” she said with a little slump. “Zuwena is a big picture thinker. Thinking out loud is how her brain works. She has a million ideas in one paragraph. I listen to it all the time. And I like it! She doesn’t confuse me.”

“But you still want to give her this feedback? Even though you’re not confused? And you don’t think she can change? Are there any benefits here?”

“I think protecting the culture is a benefit,” she said.

“And this feedback does that?” I asked.

“I hope so,” she said. Then, “Besides, I’m tired of defending Zuwena all the time. If people are going to calm down, she’s got to do it, not me.”

“And how would she calm people down?” I asked.

“That’s the thing!” She gave a disgusted frown and shook her head. “In my heart, I don’t think she should have to do anything. Part of me wants to say to these people, ‘Shut the hell up! She’s your boss. She’s not supposed to flex to you. You’re supposed to flex to her! She’s got enough on her plate. Let her be herself.’ Am I wrong for thinking that way?”

“Wrong? No. But if that’s your stance, what happens to protecting the culture?”

“Exactly! I’m stuck. I’m beginning to think nobody should ever give feedback to their boss. It’s too big a mine field.”

“I think certain leaders welcome. It’s their nature to invite feedback. And some are hungry for it. They get little to no feedback. Their boss may never do reviews. They often use their teams to figure out where they stand.”

“So what’s the secret? How do I get this message to Zuwena?”

A learning conversation

I looked at her a second, debating how to reply. Finally I said, “I’d like to take off my coaching hat for a minute and put on my consultant’s hat. There’s a model I’d like to share with you. Are you good with that?”

“Yes, I love models!” Then, holding up a finger, “Hey, instead of making notes, do you mind if I just record the rest of the session?”

“Perfect. Go ahead,” I said.

After a second, she said, “Okay. Thanks. Hit it.”

“Alright. So we want to figure out if you can give Zuwena some feedback. Let me start with this question. When you picture giving feedback to Zuwena, what do you imagine that conversation will feel like?”

“Friendly. A little tense. Cautious, I guess,” she said.

“OK. Makes sense,” I said. “If it could feel less cautious, less tense, would that be a good thing?”

“Duh!” she laughed.

“OK. So let me ask a different question. If you picture talking with Zuwena about something important to you, something you’re curious about, what do you imagine that conversation would feel like?”

“Engaged. Interesting. Fun.”

“Definitely a better outcome. And I think that can happen by reframing the way you think of the conversation. Instead of thinking of it as feedback to give her, how would it be if you thought of having a learning conversation with her?”

“What? Are you saying she’s going to ‘learn’ that people are angry instead of hearing it as feedback? Like that’s a difference?”

I smiled, saying, “I wasn’t thinking of her learning something – although she might. I was thinking of you learning something.”

“Me? Why me?” she asked.

I held up a finger. “Can I lay out the learning conversation model for you? I think I’ll answer your questions.”

She smiled. “Lead on!”

“OK. You have something important you want to tell your boss. So you are going to plan a learning conversation. You are going into this conversation with the goal of learning something. Not teaching. Not fixing. Learning.”

She smiled at me. “Well, when you put it like that!”

“And in order to help learn this thing, you are going to do three things.” I ticked on my fingers. “First, identify the ‘what.’ Second, take responsibility. Third, ask a learning question.”

“You’re going to break those down, right?”

Identify the ‘what’

“Yup! Here’s number one. Identify the ‘what’. All that means is figure out ‘what’ your learning conversation is about. If she asked you, ‘What do you want to talk with me about?’ the ‘what’ would be your answer. So what exactly do you want to learn?”

Smiling, she said, “I’d like to learn how she got this far without better filters in meetings! But, seriously, I’d like to learn… Well, I don’t know, because I think she’s the one who should be doing the learning.”

“About what?” I asked.

“That people are angry and confused sometimes.”

“And why is that important for her to know?”

“Because if we don’t manage it, it could ruin our culture.”

I shifted quickly in my chair. “I think you just figured out your ‘what’.”

“I did?” she asked.

“You said it just now.”

She looked upwards, recalling, then said slowly, “People are angry and confused sometimes. It’s changing our culture.”

I saw something click for her. I watched as she thought.

She finally turned her gaze to me, saying, “That’s amazing, actually. That way of saying it, she’s not even in it. Talk with her about the fact that people are confused and angry has to be better than talking with her about changing her behavior.”

“Oh, Julie, that’s a wonderful observation,” I said. “I think it’s important that the ‘what’ not be about the boss’s behavior.”

“That makes so much sense. And I bet it’s hard for people. I bet they want to tell the boss all the things they’re doing wrong.”

I laughed. “Including you!”

She laughed, too. “But not anymore! OK. What’s part two?”

Take responsibility

“Take responsibility,” I said.

“If you mean that I should take responsibility for the fact that people are angry at her, then I’m sorry, but no thank you.”

“No, it’s not that. This idea connects to an old saying you may have heard. ‘Don’t bring your boss a problem without bringing along a solution.’”

“Sure,” she said.

“Well, think about it. You are coming to your boss with a problem. People are angry. Are you just going to dump it at her feet? Or are you going to contribute a solution?”

“Oh!” she said. “I get it! That’s brilliant. I get to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m going to do,’ which practically begs the boss to say, ‘Well, okay, here’s what I can do!’”

“So, Julie, what could you take responsibility for? How could you help resolve the problem of people being angry and confused?”

She flashed a glance of exasperation at me, like “How would I know?” Then she turned away, thinking. A smile formed on her lips. “I could do a little play acting,” she said.

“Go on,” I encouraged.

“During staff meetings, I think I know when people are getting confused. I could feign a little confusion myself and say something like, ‘Hey, Zuwena, is that something you want us to put time into?’”

I said, “That could be really effective. Would you be comfortable proposing this to Zuwena as a possible solution?”

She thought, then nodded, “Yes, I could tell her.”

Ask a learning question

“Okay,” I said, “so we’ve figured ‘what’ the learning conversation is about, and we’re ready to say, ‘Here’s how we’d like to help.’ So we get to number three. Ask a learning question.”

“Which would sound like what?” she asked.

“Well, learning questions have two criteria.”

“I’m glad this is being recorded!” she said.

“First, a learning question has to be a question you genuinely do not know the answer to.”

She laughed with a sly smile. “No leading the witness, eh?”

“Right. You’re not trying to win. You’re trying to learn.” I said. “Second, you need to be genuinely interested. A learning question has to be about something you’d really like to talk about.”

“Like people being confused and angry,” she said.

“Right,” I agreed. “So if you’re having a learning conversation with Zuwena about confusion and anger, what would a learning question be?”

To herself she said, “Something I’m interested in and don’t know the answer to.” She frowned several times, discarding ideas. Then, cautiously, she said, “I don’t know if this would be a learning question or not. Suppose I tell her that, if I sense confusion in the room, I am going to ask her for clarification. Then I could ask, ‘What do you think?’ Would that be a learning question?”

“Does it meet both criteria?”

“I think so. I don’t know what she thinks and I am interested. So yes.” Then concern washed over her. She said, “Do I ever get to tell her that I really think she could use better filters in staff meetings?”

“Julie, that’s completely up to you. If it’s safe, tell her whenever you like. And, if you want a little support, these tools for a learning conversation can be a big help.”

Julie prepped her learning conversation with Zuwena and it went better than she’d hoped. The model, she found, gave her easy access to The Look & Sound of Leadership.


Core Concepts:
  • Approach “feedback for my boss” as a learning conversation
  • The topic should not include targeting your boss’s behavior
  • Be sure you can contribute to solving some of the issue yourself
  • Arrive at the conversation with genuine interest and curiosity, rather than blame and frustration

Related Library Categories:

Recent Episodes

Trending Episodes

Scroll to Top