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Don't say that to your boss; say this instead

CareerBuilder | August 19, 2020

Don't speak before you think about what you're going to say.

Our friends over at The Hiring Site recently gave bosses tips on how best to provide feedback to employees in “Say This, Not That: 5 Ways to Give Feedback That Gets Results.” Author Mary Lorenz tells employers that generic feedback doesn’t help anyone.

“The only way you can expect your employees to get better at what they do is to give them constructive, candid and timely feedback. But, again, giving feedback is a skill that requires practice – and carefully chosen words,” she says.

For example, she explains that “good job,” while being nice to hear, doesn’t do much for your development. When your boss points out one or two actions that you performed successfully or even ones you didn’t do well, you can take that feedback and learn.

That list got us thinking: What should we, the employees, not say? And what can we say instead to get the message across? No one wants a list of forbidden phrases or words — you’re not children, after all. We just wanted to give you guidance so you can choose your words carefully when communicating with your boss. You want your boss to understand what you need and want because that would help your job performance. And you don’t want to offend him or her. So you’re left scratching your head because you have a lot to say but you don’t know how to say it.

Here are our suggestions for how to get your message across with tact:

1. Don’t say: “You give the worst feedback. Ever.”

Do say: “Can you tell me one or two things I didn’t do as well as you’d hoped? I’d like to know how I could’ve done better.”

Why: Showing that you’re interested in hearing the truth and improving yourself gives your boss the signal that you can handle constructive criticism. It also increases the chances that you’ll receive similar helpful feedback in the future. It also prevents you from hearing empty praise, only to realize later that the boss was lying and that he’s not pleased with your work.

2. Don’t say: “Um – sure, I get it.”

Do say: “I don’t quite understand what our goals are. Can you give some more details?”

Why: Some bosses aren’t skilled at giving clear instructions. They know what they want, but putting their thoughts into words is difficult. Rather than play along, ask them to provide specifics so you know what you’re aiming for. You might feel awkward at first, but it will pay off in the end when you’ve done your job well. Otherwise you’ll fail to do what the boss wanted and she’ll wonder how you misinterpreted her directions.

3. Don’t say: “I want your job.”

Do say: “In your opinion, am I on the right path to move up in this company? If you were me, what areas would you be focusing on?”

Why: If you want to advance in your profession, you’ll eventually have to do the job that your boss is doing, even if only for a brief period of time in order to move up. You don’t want your boss to think you’re his enemy and are taking a page from “Julius Caesar.” Be honest about wanting to advance — ambition is nothing to hide. If your boss knows you’re taking your job seriously, he’ll give you more responsibility to help you achieve that goal. He might even be an ally who will put in a good word for you when some new opportunity is available.

4. Don’t say: “This will never work.”

Do say: “I’d like to let you know what concerns I have about this [project/idea/initiative].

Why: “Bring me solutions, not problems” is an old but true workplace cliché. Most of the time. But when you’re the person in charge of a plan and you know more about it than anyone, you also have insights no one else does. That means your concerns are worth hearing. Don’t whine and don’t be overly dramatic. Tell your boss why you’re concerned and what your options are so that she can make an informed decision and a negative outcome won’t come as a cruel surprise.

What else would you add to the list? As employees we know that it’s easy to say what you think the boss wants to hear, not what needs to be said. But your job and your relationship with the boss can depend on saying the right thing. If you’ve found the right way to have honest and effective communication with your boss, let us know.


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