Tell your boss

By Martin Tothill

Martin lives to help and grow others to be the best leaders they can and in turn inspire a future generation of followers to do the very same.

“Never give upward feedback. You’ll wreck your career, upset your boss and, worst of all, make a fool of yourself.”

That’s a rule people are often taught. But courageous types don’t follow rules – they do the right thing and say what needs to be said.

Here’s a brief story to explain the point:

A junior was dining out with her team one evening to celebrate the completion of a successful audit.

Throughout the meal, restaurant staff politely tended to the team’s every need, topping up drinks, clearing empty plates and bringing more food.

But a junior staff member noticed something: her boss – a partner in the business – chatted across the table, listened, shared insights, cracked the odd joke and made light conversation with colleagues. All the things you’d expect from a good role model.

But every time a glass was filled, a plate cleared or cutlery replenished, the partner ignored the waiting staff. He gave nothing – no nods of the head, gentle smiles or even a quiet ‘thank you’.

Back in the office the next day the junior asked to feed back to the partner.

She explained, in simple terms, exactly what she’d seen the previous evening and described the impact her boss’s behaviour had had on her (and probably the restaurant’s staff, too).

She concluded with a suggestion: in future, it would be more polite to acknowledge waiting staff, both verbally and non-verbally.

This story might sound familiar. Perhaps it's the story we tell ourselves: the conversation we wished we’d had with a boss, but didn’t. It’s an anecdote we were told by the very partner who’d received the suggestion. He actively encourages his staff to feed back – to anyone – including himself. This insight into his behaviour, he told us, had been a real blind spot and no one, not even close friends, had drawn his attention to it.

Whenever he dines out now, he makes a point of thanking the restaurant staff and, in doing so, reminds himself that service matters and upward feedback works.

A simple suggestion from a colleague to improve behaviour that otherwise might’ve held him back: “Here’s what I noticed...and here’s what you could do.”

With the right intention, feedback – in any direction – helps.


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