Nancy MacCready-Williams was a newly minted executive with the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia when she chaired a meeting on a new initiative the organization was evaluating.
Moments after the meeting started, Ms. MacCready-Williams quickly weighed in with her opinion. It didn't go over the way she thought it would.
As the room cleared out after the meeting, a subordinate took her aside, and asked her to consider "toning down the passion." The employee told Ms. MacCready-Williams, now president and chief executive officer of the workplace injury insurance provider, that her enthusiasm and energy could be intimidating to some employees.
"My passion for my job, the speed with which I voiced my opinion and my positional power shut the room down," she recalls. "No one wanted to speak up after that."
Giving a boss blunt feedback, like that employee did, is not easy, especially in times like these, when workers fear doing anything that might compromise their jobs.
About four in 10 - 44 per cent - of more than 7,800 respondents to a Globe and Mail online poll this week said that they did not feel free to speak their minds to their bosses.
But that employee was on to something. A recent British study found that telling bosses honestly and openly what you think of them actually benefits both managers and employees, boosting morale, reducing stress and improving communication.
Just as important: Bosses actually do listen. Managers told by their employees what they thought of them were more likely to change, and improve, their management style. Those that didn't were less likely to change, the study found.
"Upward feedback from employees is critical to helping managers understand how they're being perceived," says Emma Donaldson-Feidler, a London-based occupational psychologist and author of the study, Preventing Stress: Promoting Positive Manager Behaviour, which was presented at a conference of the British Psychological Society.
During the study, 207 managers were tested for a range of positive management behaviour, such as controlling their emotions, monitoring employee workloads and resolving conflict. They were then provided with feedback from 594 employees, and their performance was evaluated again after three months.
The results showed that, after receiving the feedback, managers actually changed their style. They began to demonstrate a range of behaviour that researchers determined was crucial for promoting a positive work environment: keeping anger, frustration or even excitement under control; keeping promises; problem-solving; empowering staff; reducing the workload for stressed-out employees; and resolving, rather than ignoring, office conflicts.
"Managers often don't realize the impact certain behaviours have on employees," Ms. Donaldson-Feidler says.
It's not that bosses don't want to change behaviour that bothers employees; it's that they often aren't aware there's a problem, she adds.
Take Ms. MacCready-Williams. She says the feedback she received from her employee took her totally by surprise. "I had no idea I came across that way."
But the employee's comment gave her the information she needed to modify her behaviour. She is now careful to rein in exuberant reactions during meetings, and waits for others to speak before sharing her opinion, she says.
There are compelling reasons for employees to make feedback a two-way street, says Alan Kearns, founder of career-coaching firm Career Joy.
"Giving feedback says you're confident in your strengths and in your value," he says.
Not only does providing it signal to your boss that you're an empowered employee, he says, but it can also underscore your value to yourself. "It can give you a sense of control over your environment."
Having a sense of control and value is especially important for employees in a tough job market, Mr. Kearns adds, as confidence raises you above the competition - and perhaps away from the chopping block.
Passing feedback up the line can also help with job longevity. A number of studies have shown that problems with an immediate manager are one of the leading reasons why employees quit their jobs.
But there are right and wrong ways to effectively deliver feedback, experts say. For one thing, it's critical to depersonalize, Ms. MacCready-Williams says. "It's hard for anyone to accept personal criticism," she says. Instead, she encourages her team to focus on specific actions and "describe the behaviour, explain the impact it has on you and suggest a solution."
As well, say your piece immediately. "You need to confront people in the moment," she says. "If you wait and allow problems to fester, you're going to add to stress unnecessarily, and chances are the conversation won't go as well."
The more informal you are, the more successful you'll be, Mr. Kearns says. Rather than schedule a meeting with your boss in the boardroom, where the formality may put him or her on edge, consider talking at a casual, off-site location. Keep the talk casual, too.
It's also smart to think about how your boss best likes to receive information. If he or she is a face-to-face communicator, deliver what you have to say in person; if the written word is preferred, consider drafting a brief, neutrally worded e-mail, Mr. Kearns says.
Katie Bennett, head of Double Black Diamond Coaching in Vancouver, says one non-confrontational way to give your boss feedback is to ask for it to be part of your regular performance reviews.
To be ready, she recommends enlisting the help of a mentor to vet what you have to say, and coach your delivery.
No matter how many things you think may be wrong, try to limit what you have to say to the one or two most important items, Ms. Bennett suggests. "It's very difficult to focus on changing more than one behaviour at a time."
As for bosses, the only thing worse than not seeking input is asking for it and then not acting on it. "Ignoring feedback you've specifically requested from an employee is the biggest mistake you can make," Ms. Bennett says.
One way to avoid that is to "build in a system to act on the feedback." She suggests, for instance, scheduling "accountability appointments" with employees to gather new feedback and discuss how well you're acting on their advice.
Another option is to work feedback-based behaviour changes into your performance reviews. You could also flag them as an item for discussion during executive coaching sessions.
Providing regular opportunities for employees to address their concerns is important, too. Employees at Toronto-based publishing firm Actual Media Inc. are encouraged by their boss to weigh in on how things are going at weekly staff meetings and daily one-on-one individual discussions, executive editor Mira Shenker says. Employee-boss feedback is also part of regular performance reviews.
Ms. Shenker says her ability to provide her boss with real-time feedback has played an important role in her job satisfaction.
"When problems come up, I feel comfortable addressing them with my boss right away," she says.
The result? She says she feels a sense of ownership and control over her work. "When friends complain about a work situation and tell me it's out of their hands, I really can't relate," she says. "[Speaking up]eliminates the feeling that your hands are tied."
GIVING AND RECEIVING FEEDBACK
Don't make it personal
Criticism aimed at someone is hard to take and more likely to cause hurt feelings and bad blood than be effective. Talk instead about specific behaviour or actions. Provide feedback in a neutral, non-confrontational way.
Make it timely
Speak up right away. Don't let frustrations fester. Feedback is likely to be more effective when the issue is fresh.
Limit your feedback to one or two items. It's too tough to change too many things at once.
Less formal will be more effective. Rather than schedule a meeting in the office, ask to talk in a casual, off-site location. And keep the conversational tone casual, too.
Suit your boss's style
If your boss prefers face-to-face communication, say it in person. If your boss prefers the written word, e-mail may be better.
Make it regular
Ask that employee-to-boss feedback be part of your regular performance evaluations, especially if you don't have regular opportunities to give feedback to your boss.
You can ask for employee input in a variety of ways, from regular staff meetings to one-on-one sessions with employees to making employee feedback part of your performance review. Include anonymous feedback: You're more likely to get honest answers.
Ask the right questions
Suggestion from the pros: What am I doing that I should continue doing? What am I doing that I should stop doing? What would you like me to start doing?
Ask, and act
Nothing will erode trust and confidence in your leadership faster than asking for feedback and not acting on it.
Enlist the help of a coach. Schedule regular meetings with employees to make sure you're following up on their advice.