“Ms. Keromosemito, my boss asked me to give him feedback. There are a few things I would like to criticize. Do you think I should really tell him what I think of him?“ Mr. M., employee in a medical technology company, recently asked me. Criticizing others is always a challenge. From a rational point of view we are able to understand that it makes sense to tell someone when they are not behaving “correctly.” How else will the person know that their behavior is not OK?

Time and again we read that there are a higher-than-average number of narcissists among top-level managers. I do not believe that this is true. The managers I work with do not strike me as psychologically abnormal. However, some definitely display peculiar behaviors. This is hardly surprising, because the higher up the hierarchy managers are, the fewer people will have the courage to give them honest feedback. We are too worried that our bosses resent us if we criticize them. Criticism may (unconsciously) be used against us, for example, when it comes to the next salary review or promotion round.

As consultants, we find all this a bit easier. These days, consultants sometimes take on the role of a court jester. We are able to voice harsh truths without losing our heads. But what kind of head space are we in when such thoughts plague us? Salary freeze, ruined careers, lost heads? We are definitely not in the here and now, but in fantasy land. Our fear has unconsciously catapulted us to a horror scenario in which we see our children growing up as orphans, on the brink of starvation, because we lost our heads. Get out of there as fast as you can! Fear is rarely a good adviser.

The question of “How do I tell my boss?” is a hot topic in a lot of my training and coaching sessions. Here, I do not so much work on helping my customers find perfect or polished formulations, but instead I support them with formulating criticism in such a way that it is in line with their style of communication. Criticism MAY be perceived negatively by the boss, but does NOT HAVE to be. This depends on both you and your boss in equal measure. Some people are open and can handle the truth, while others are quickly offended. However, in my experience most managers are grateful if people are frank with them, even if they find the feedback hard to swallow initially. I firmly recommend providing critical feedback in a one-on-one setting and communicating honestly, clearly, and at the same time in an appreciative way.

Wisdom is listening to your own advice. I am far from wise, on the contrary, for years I have been working on showing appreciation for others. I don’t always manage this successfully and tend to receive the feedback that I should be more diplomatic. Over 20 years ago, this led to me getting the far-from-flattering nickname “Kalashnikova.” When it comes to being more diplomatic, my development progress seems to be rather slow.

For example, Mr. S., managing director of a large Swiss company, told me a while ago that during the last management conference he gave the order to have the doors locked from the inside right after the end of the lunch break to teach habitual latecomers a lesson. He said that he then resolutely carried on with the conference with only 90% of managers present. I am aware that the Swiss attach great importance to punctuality, however, I was shocked by this approach and told him – “Are you crazy? Never do that again!”

BAM, there she was again – Kalashnikova. Spontaneous, impulsive, and anything but appreciative. Seven years of meditation and mindfulness training gone down the drain. I am not sure who was more stunned following my comment, Mr. S or me. Mr. S. reacted promptly. He explained that the topic of a loss of efficiency as a result of latecomers had been discussed repeatedly in the company and that he was simply fed up. He was aware that this was not a popular measure, but bosses had to be consistent after all. He stated that ultimately, bosses should be role models. His justifications ended with the statement – “What else am I supposed to do to get managers to finally realize that they should be on time?”

I felt a bit like I do when I surf and when a solid head-high wave approaches me from behind. I then often think – that wave is too big, I can’t manage that. I get scared of the impending wipeout, scared that the wave will crash over me and that it will pull me under. For seemingly endless 5-10 seconds you then can’t distinguish between up and down. That is a good exercise for a control freak like me. I love surfing. It doesn’t allow for “maybe” and “I’ll just try it out.” It is uncompromising. Each wave is a unique opportunity. If you hesitate it is often already too late. However, if you overcome your fear and put all your effort into paddling, you can reach the top of the wave. This is rewarded with the best feeling in the world, the so-called stoke. “You go for the wave, or you don’t.“

I realized that there was also no way back with Mr. S. I did not listen to the queasy feeling in my stomach that was telling me that my children will soon be motherless. Fear is rarely a good adviser. I took a deep breath and said firmly – “I am sorry Mr. S., I stand by what I said, that was a REALLY STUPID idea of yours. This has nothing to do with motivating employees.” This was like a wake-up call for Mr. S. As an intelligent and self-reflected person he was quickly able to realize that he had acted out of anger. Anger is also not a good adviser. There is no point in getting upset about people being late. There is (pretty much) always someone who arrives late for a meeting. After all, each and every one of has been late at one time or another, no matter how important punctuality is to us. I recommended the following to Mr. S. – “Next time you are upset about someone being late, first of all try to realize that you are angry. Where do you feel this in your body? Try to direct your breathing to that area. Use these few minutes in which you have nothing to do to look after yourself mentally. How are you currently feeling? Allow yourself to relax. Treat yourself to a five-minute break. You take too few breaks after all. One thing is clear, no matter how upset you get, your employee won’t turn up any sooner as a result. The only one who suffers is you. In this state of mind you are not able to fully concentrate on the meeting.”

My trainer Georg Lolos inspired me here. If there was any commotion during training because some group members had not yet returned from a break, Georg often said – “We are not waiting, we are breathing.” I have taken this to heart.

  • I do not wait, I breathe while the coffee machine warms up and makes my first cappuccino.
  • I do not wait, I breathe if the Wi-Fi is being particularly slow and downloading a file is seemingly taking ages.
  • I do not wait, I breathe if the lady in front of me at the airport security check informs staff that she is neither willing to check in her 200 ml cream pot nor to throw it away.
  • I do not wait, I breathe and swap anger for precious lifetime.

Mr. S. is also relaxing visibly. I did not lose my head and during the rest of the coaching session we calmly talked about what the management conference was actually about: showing appreciation for the managers’ very good performance in the last financial year and motivating them for the coming financial year. Well that had all gone slightly wrong. Locking out the managers had caused a lot of upheaval. The aim was now to plan the next steps. The next wave is definitely already on the way. “Get ready!“

In retrospect, the crazy thing is not that Mr. S. had asked someone to lock the doors but that he was still convinced that that had been a good idea several weeks later. That happens when you never receive any feedback. Two weeks ago, one of my German coachees told me that in his company too, the boss had locked the latecomers out and the attending managers in. None of the attendees had spoken up – not even afterwards. Peculiar behaviors at top management level – not just a Swiss problem.

Does it get you anywhere to give your boss feedback or does it result in you losing your head? You won’t find out unless you try it. As Mr. M. has a very good relationship with his line manager and as he had always supported him, I encouraged him to voice his points of criticism honestly. He took my advice. It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. He is still with the company. I cannot say exactly how honest and open Mr. M. was when speaking to his boss, however, I am certain that he did not use a Kalashnikov during the meeting and showed a lot of appreciation instead.