Dear Crucial Skills,
I appreciated your recent article, “How to Tell an Employee They Talk Too Much.” Would you approach this situation in the same way if it were your boss who talks too much? Or what would you do differently?
Battling the Babbling
Giving feedback to your boss can feel like walking a tightrope spanning a pit of roiling lava. No missteps, no second chances. However, while it is true that our bosses are, by definition, people in positions of power or authority, I have found it helpful to focus on the word people rather than power. Our bosses are people. Yes, they have power, but they are people first. Here is how I would approach them as people who also happen to have power to influence my work and life.
Do Your Homework
You’ve drawn the conclusion that your boss talks too much. Presumably you have specific examples of when they have done so and how it has impacted you or the team negatively. If you don’t, make sure you do. Why do you find their talking to be “too much” rather than “a lot”? You need to have a clear answer for that question.
Once you have your facts gathered, it may be helpful to broaden your research base. Right now, your conclusion is based on n of one—you. Do others see your boss’s behavior and its impact similarly? I’d suggest checking your conclusion with a couple of trusted colleagues who know you and your boss. Do they see the same patterns that you do and share the same concerns? If not, you may need to reconsider whether you have judged your boss’s behavior accurately and fairly.
Test for Readiness
When you are ready to start the conversation, make sure your boss is ready. This might sound like, “I have some feedback I’d like to share if you are interested.” Or, “May I share some feedback that I think might be helpful?”
When you test for readiness, you do two things: (1) you alert your boss that an important message is coming and give them some say in when and whether to hear it, and (2) you start to build a social contract with your boss. When they have agreed to hear your message, they are more inclined to listen openly having consented to do so.
I once worked with an office manager who did this brilliantly. She worked with several strong egos and often had to navigate competing demands. Her way of entering the conversation? She would say, “I have a perspective to share.” Then she would ask, “Is this a safe space for that?” The phrasing of the question worked beautifully for her because it both assessed for openness to different perspectives AND built safety at the same time.
After you have tested for readiness, share your good intent as discussed in the previous column, “How to Tell an Employee They Talk Too Much.”
Ask for Grace and Space
Not many of us will deliver a tough message perfectly every time, especially when we are nervous. It can be helpful to acknowledge that up front and ask for grace when you mess up and space to try again.
Years ago, I needed to have a tough feedback conversation with a very senior leader who had significant influence over whether I would continue to work for his company or not. I had prepared well and was still very nervous. As I began the conversation I said, “This is hard for me to share, and I am pretty sure I’ll mess it up despite my best efforts. I am hoping you’ll be patient with me and hear me out, even if I stumble.” The senior leader looked a little surprised but said, “Go ahead.” During the conversation he was open, curious, and willing to engage with what I needed to say. It was as if we were now partners in this conversation, both working hard to make sure it went well.
I have assumed that you want to speak up to your boss because the excessive talking has clear negative impacts. So, the thing to remember is what’s at stake. A few years back, Joseph Grenny wrote a column about speaking up to a CEO. He gave some great suggestions, many of which have informed my own response here. He also wrote something I’d like to include. It cuts through the chaff of indecision or rationalization.
“You have the potential of being the best friend your CEO has. I hope you will be. What you’ve said is that 1) you care about and respect your CEO; 2) you have information that might be crucial for her to know if she is to succeed in one of the most important efforts of her career. This is a no-brainer. The only question is, do you care about her and the company more than you care about your own comfort?”
Finally, your question helped me realize two things. First, I would take a little more care when giving feedback to my boss. Second, if I’m going to take more care when addressing my boss, I should take that same care when I am in the position of power, otherwise I am trading on my power to skate by in Crucial Conversations, and that will not do. Thank you, and I hope these ideas help.