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How can you provide fruitful criticism to your manager?

In 2012, ISD teacher Joseph Drake was suspended for criticizing in a private email a school board member who suggested increasing teachers’ work-hours. Similarly, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Neumann, was, most probably, ousted from his function after criticizing his boss, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, in a private meeting with a senator.

Ego and status threat

I admit that these are extreme examples of managers’ reactions to employee criticism. More so, I am sure that there are managers who can take constructive criticism with dignity and appreciation. However, fact is that many managers (as well as employees) find it difficult to deal with criticism or information indicating unsatisfactory performance. The main reason for this is that criticism questions the manager’s competence and thereby jeopardizes his or her self-view and status. As a result, managers try to shield themselves from this potential threat by reacting with anger, and more often than not, blame the employee who criticized them.

Employees often hesitate to criticize their boss

As a result, employees are often afraid to criticize those who hold power over them. They fear that their words will come back to haunt them. Whereas only a negligible minority of employees would lose their jobs for criticizing their boss, the more likely consequences of such behavior would be getting passed over for promotions, bonuses, or interesting assignments. In this respect, the comedy “Swimming with sharks” presents more examples of how managers can distress their employees. Employees’ reluctance to provide constructive criticism to their managers is, however, highly unfortunate, given that constructive negative feedback is critical for leadership development. To properly develop one’s leadership skills and avoid repetitive mistakes, it is essential to receive feedback from others.

Research findings: The importance of framing

In a laboratory and a field study, we explored how employees can fruitfully criticize their managers without eliciting aversive reactions. Our findings show that for those in power the framing of the criticism strongly influences their responses. Take, for example, a consultant who delivers a presentation in front of a client and afterwards asks his/her colleague’s opinion of it. The colleague might provide direct and blunt criticism by saying: “Your talk was unsatisfactory” or more indirect and polite criticism by saying: “It is very difficult to give a good talk”. Our results indicate that powerful managers react more constructively if they are criticized in an indirect manner than if they are criticized in a direct manner. We believe the reason for this is that indirect criticism shows the provider’s respect for the counterpart and thereby reduces ego and status threats. Moreover, powerful individuals tend to hold a higher self-view and status than lower power individuals and thus are more likely to forcefully demand being treated with dignity and respect. Therefore, indirect feedback is more likely to improve reactions to criticism among those who hold power in an organization.

 So what advice can we provide?

  • Coach managers to interpret criticism as a learning opportunity (and not as a threat to their ego or status)
  • Inform employees that indirect framing of criticism can improve managers’ reactions to it and train them in how to provide indirect criticism to their managers
  • Train employees in other possible strategies they can use to reduce ego and status threat when providing their managers with negative feedback :
    • Focus on the task and not on the person when providing negative feedback;
    • Use the sandwich method, which is, embedding criticism between praising the individual’s performance. Praise shows respect for individuals’ ego and status and thus, helps managers to accept criticism;
    • Frame the criticism by stating how you perceive the other’s behavior instead of focusing on your counterpart’s mistakes and shortcoming.
  • Organizations may also benefit from hiring managers who deal constructively with criticism, such as managers holding a growth mindset. In contrast to managers with a fixed mindset, who believe that their qualities are stable, managers holding a growth mindset perceive their qualities to be developable. This makes them more likely to encourage employees to provide upward feedback and to use the feedback to improve their skills.

Winston Churchill once said “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things”. The importance of criticism for successful performance should stimulate employees to offer criticism in the least threatening and most constructive manner. It should simultaneously encourage managers to think about how they can get the most out of the criticism, independent of its framing. It is an opportunity to become a better manager.

Niemann, J., Wisse, B., Rus, D., Van Yperen, N. W., & Sassenberg, K. (2014). C’est le Ton Qui Fait la Critique – for the powerful. The effects of feedback framing and power on affective reactions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.


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About Jana Niemann

Jana Niemann received her PhD in Organizational Psychology from the University of Groningen in April 2013. Her dissertation focuses on feedback-seeking behavior and reactions to feedback in organizations. Niemann has presented her work at various international conferences, such as the Academy of Management, where one of her papers was chosen to be included in the best paper proceedings. Currently, Niemann works as a lecturer at the University of Groningen. You can read more about her work here. Connect with Jana on LinkedIn