The Right Way to Speak Truth to Power

Last Updated Apr 12, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

Be happy to you don't work in the court of Henry VIII. He was a very unforgiving boss, not to mention husband. He held his staff accountable, a good thing in most management circles -- but providing Henry a wrong bit of advice could cost you your head. Literally.

Today's bosses aren't quite as draconian, but that doesn't mean you should talk to The Man like you chat up a neighbor. Communicating with anyone who holds your professional life in their hands deserves thoughtfulness and tactfulness. So what is your strategy when it comes to giving your boss feedback on her performance?

Amy Gallo offers a ton of good advice in her HBR.org post, How to Give Your Boss Feedback. Here are three of her tips to get you closer to that chancy conversation.

  1. Don't dive in unsolicited. In the best of all worlds, the boss will ask you for feedback. But what if she doesn't? If you think she would be open to a little help, look for the right time, such as when you are discussing a new project or client, Gallo says. You can say something like, "Would it be helpful to you for me to give you feedback at certain points in this project?" or "I'm likely to have a unique perspective on what we're doing, would you like some feedback about how the project is going?"
  2. Focus. Just because the boss is open to a little positive criticism doesn't mean she wants to hear about her irritating chew-on-the-pencil habit. Be clear on what advice is being solicited, and don't stray.
  3. When in doubt, hold your tongue. Being cautious might help you keep your head.
Have you talked to power and lived to regret it? What's your advice on giving advice?
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.