Bosses Say They Want the Truth. Do They Mean It?


Marchiano Loen stared at his screen for two hours. He drafted one response, then another. He begged someone in human resources for help. Still, the question vexed him. 

What can your manager improve on?

“Oh God, I actually have to answer this,” the tech worker thought as he pondered the employee survey. “What am I going to write?”

Bosses claim they want honest feedback. Telling the truth can spark change, make your work life better, and show off your own assertiveness. Or you could get fired. (At least it feels that way.) 

Like it or not, silence isn’t an option. But you have to be really careful about just how candid to get with the boss.

Loen says he was once frozen out by a manager after suggesting he could improve his communication style during presentations. Warm small talk and jokes evaporated, and Loen’s big projects were redistributed. 

Now he uses what he calls “the Jacuzzi approach.” He dips a toe in with bosses to test the water, seeing how they react to a fairly neutral piece of commentary before saying anything of substance. He might ask, would that meeting be better on Tuesday than Monday? 

“It’s a survival mechanism,” he says. 

The lies we tell

The average person lies three times in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone new, according to research from Robert Feldman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Such superficial fibs lubricate many of our social interactions, he says, helping us fit in and getting people to like us. 

This salad is delicious, we insist. Or I loved the “Barbie” movie, too! With the boss, the photo of their kid is suddenly extraordinarily cute, their jacket perfect for today’s presentation. 

“At the end of the day, we want to hear good things,” Feldman says. “Your boss is just like everybody else.”

What about when bosses want to be tapped into what’s really going on, too? After all, you’re the one who’s connected to collegial chatter and gossip, which can give managers insight into how they can do a better job and get ahead. Giving the right information to your boss can help you, too. You just have to share it the right way. 


“I want people to feel like they can be them,” says Karin Storm Wood, who manages a team of communication professionals at a private school. But, “I don’t want everything.”

Don’t assume you have all the facts, she says. Acknowledge you’re just sharing one person’s perspective. And keep your language grounded. For instance, describe a behavior instead of lobbing a negative adjective at your boss. 

Wood says she’s OK with hearing that she sometimes jumps around from idea to idea in brainstorming sessions. She doesn’t want you to call her “scattered.”

“That’s like, ‘Ouch,’ ” she says. “It has that element of judgment.”

Feedback, please!

Everyone seems to want our take these days. We’re subjected to quarterly 360 reviews, weekly pulse surveys and drive-by requests for input by the coffee machine. It’s part of a longstanding shift from command-and-control leadership styles to more collaborative ways of running companies, says Doug Stone, who teaches conflict management at Harvard Law School and co-wrote the book, “Thanks for the Feedback.” A lot of it stems from employees who have demanded more of a voice…even if another app wasn’t what they had in mind. 

Be careful what you wish for.

“You have to say something,” says Matt Abrahams, who teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has a book coming out this week about spontaneous communication.

A smart start is to ask some questions of your own to the boss, says Abrahams. What kind of guidance do they typically find useful? If they readily divulge a time they messed up or made a change, be more candid, he suggests.

Emphasizing the positive might subconsciously correct the negative. For example, praising the boss for being so focused at the start of her speech could imply that she completely lost her train of thought by the end, without having to spell it out. But don’t get too soft, Abrahams warns, devolving into coded language and euphemisms. 

“You’re being coy. You’ve got something to say but you’re not saying it. That can look really bad for you,” he says. After all, we were all hired to be experts in our jobs.

The risk of always saying yes

Earlier in his career, Irvan Krantzler used to nod his head yes to everything, eager to fit in. That project idea? It sounded great. A deadline next week? Sure, he could handle it. 

The result, he says, was often “bad news, late.” The issue he didn’t speak up about—an unrealistic timeline, not enough people on the team—would fester and eventually send a project sideways. 

“I can’t be put in a situation where I can’t be open with people,” he says he realized. He started voicing his concerns more and left one employer where everyone was expected to agree all the time.  

When Leslie Venetz’s boss asked her what she thought about a new team of salespeople, she assumed the pair were just spitballing thoughts in confidence. A few months later, her comments were shared with HR, she says, and a person she had identified as weak was fired.

She felt guilty and betrayed, and soon left the company. 

Now when clients of her sales training and consulting firm request her feedback, she asks how they’re going to use it. Are they deciding the fate of a division this week? Or just considering a possibility, and gathering dozens of opinions in the meantime?

The answer, she says, determines her candor. 

“Everyone says that they want feedback,” she says. “There’s something to be said for taking a moment.”

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