3 Techniques To Give Direct Feedback To Your C-Suite


October 31, 2013

Earlier this week, I wrote a post called ‘3 Techniques To Give Direct Feedback At Work. There were a few follow up questions posted in the comments that lend themselves to additional posts with further clarification.  Here is a question posed by Jay Goldman from Rypple.com.  Jay asks:

How would you handle a situation in which giving the feedback could be detrimental to your job? Let’s say, for example, that the ‘chatty cathy’ in your office is actually the CEO. You know she’s not interrupting you on purpose and really wants to see your results, but you also know that she’s pretty sensitive about personal feedback. How would you handle letting her know?

Believe it or not, the question of how to give your CEO or others in the C-suite direct feedback comes up more than you think. Many employees would love to give feedback but either the leader makes himself or herself unapproachable or the company culture supports that the decisions or actions of those in the C-suite are untouchable.  This makes the employee feel like there is no use in giving the feedback.

I’ve heard the advice that for leaders, the best feedback is given in an anonymous survey, in the employee engagement survey, or by leaving an anonymous note in the ‘Suggestion Box’ if the company has one.  I know of situations where employees leave anonymous, typed letters on a leader’s desk.

As I said in the earlier post about giving feedback to a colleague, this indirect feedback is not the best approach.  Why not?

  • In a survey, your one comment can get lost in the sea of responses and not stand out to the leader as something that really needs to change.
  • Dropping anonymous notes in a box or on their desk  is also not good because since the leader is human, that leader may focus more on trying to determine who wrote the note than on the validity of the feedback contained in the note.

Real change in behavior, regardless of who is receiving it, is more likely to come from a delivery that is sincere and made in a respectful way.  In other words, be real and say it the way you would personally want to receive that type of message.  So, although you need to finesse them a little differently,  I stick to the same three techniques you would use for a colleague.  They are:

Be Direct-

Frame your feedback in the ‘Compliment- Concern- Question’ format.  Give the leader a sincere compliment on a behavior.  Then, state your concern.  Wrap it up with a question that asks the leader for their help in resolving the situation. The approach might sound like this, “Sir. I would like to talk with you for a moment. I’ve noticed you like to come to my cube each afternoon to talk with me about _________(insert sport, politics, or whatever topic here).   I really enjoy being able to have those conversations with you.  One concern I have though is that I am not going to be timely in meeting deadlines you set if I don’t focus on the project at hand.  Can you help me prioritize being able to meet your expectations, yet still have time for casual interactions?”

By framing your feedback in this way, you are still being direct and communicating that the leader’s behavior is the distraction.  You are also communicating that you want to do a good job and meet the leader’s deadlines and expectations. Finally, you are finessing the situation so that you’re asking the leader to LEAD you and guide you to the solution.  You are not coming on so strong that you are telling the leader what to do.  This is a good strategy to get your point across and still allow the leader to save face.  It can even work for more serious feedback when you disagree with a decision the leader has made.  By framing it with the Compliment- Concern- Question format, you can raise your concern without putting the leader on the defensive.

Don’t bring other people into it-

Don’t feel obligated to be the speaker for the group.  Even if other people have this issue, the second you tell the leader, “Sir, everyone on the team says…..”, you have just shut that leader’s mind down from hearing the rest of the sentence.  They are now in “human” mode and their brain is wondering who is talking about them behind their back.  Keep your feedback direct and speak on your own behalf.

Use your voice/ avoid e-mail-

This goes back to avoiding the indirect approach.  Your message may not have the tone you think it does and the message will not likely have the impact you’re desiring.  You can’t determine when the leader reads that message and it may not be the ideal time for them to receive it.  By saying the feedback out loud, directly to the leader, you are in control of the tone of your message as well as the timing of the delivery.

I once had a leader I respected tell me to give it to him straight when it came to feedback.  He’d tell me, “I’m just a guy.”  As a young woman at the time, it was  a good lesson to learn and since then, I’ve always thought of those in the C-suite in that way. They are human.  They want feedback like the rest of us and want it delivered in a respectful, direct way. I’m not saying it will be an easy conversation, but I guarantee that the leader will respect you more for having the conversation.

What do you think?  Do you have any examples to share?


  • Trish, excellent post. I have run across many people who are afraid to step up and relay communications to a higher level in their organizations on subject matter that is important to the group. Your tips are spot on.

    Kind of reminds me of Longstreet and Lee at Gettysburg…but that is another story.

    • @John- I hadn’t thought about Longstreet and Lee, but that is so spot on. Just imagine how differently history may have turned out if Longstreet had been comfortable in pushing Lee a little more. Longstreet did tell Lee that he disagreed and gave his option of assuming a defensive strategy. But, when that met resistance, he let it go. I imagine he regretted that for the rest of his life.

  • Great topic! This is probably why I became a communication consultant. I think the best way to handle the delivery of feedback depends on the nature of the “offense,” your relationship with the executive, and your comfort level with yourself.

    Here’s an example:

    I once had a significantly older boss (owner of the company) who called me an ethnic name in front of another manager, just as we were all leaving for the day. Got a lot of laughs at my expense. Wildly inappropriate!

    The next day, I went to the boss privately, asked if he was available, closed the door, sat down across from him and said calmly, “I need to ask you, as politely as I can, not to call me a —–.” Boy, did he feel bad. He apologized right away, we talked about it a little, shook hands, and it never came up again.

    Trish, in the example you gave of the chatty Cathy CEO, I think I would opt for an even simpler approach. Rather than drawing attention to the bad behavior, I think I would smile and say something like, “I am really on a roll with these reports that are due today — would you mind if I caught up with you after they’re done?” Light and breezy!

    Regardless of the exact words or manner in which it’s handled, I agree that it’s key to let the other person save face.


  • Trish,
    Great article and suggestions in your article and in the comments.
    I recently wrote a White Paper titled, “The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Leadership Communication” and one of the 7 sins is the indirect communication you mention above as not the best approach.

    It definitely leaves too much ambiguity, puts the focus in the wrong place as you correctly point out, and does not solve the issue because the perpetrator really never “gets it.”

    If anyone would like to learn more about, or get a copy of the The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Leadership Communication White Paper, it is available as a free download.

  • Compliment- Concern- Question

    Compliment: breaks the ice (more for you than for the receiver of the feedback) – It’s important to have a strategy that gets you relaxed

    Concern: Light and breezy like Gina suggests is GREAT

    Question: Love this! How can you help me …?, how can I help you…?, What do you think about (offer solutions)…? and so many other possibilities!

    Great advice on a topic I adore!


Comments are closed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-01 at 17.20.39

About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


Play Video


Play Video

Related posts

Fear and Chaos: Taking Action at Work

Ten years ago, I wrote an article called Nothing Should Trump Personal Accountability. Back then, I was thinking about ways to reduce […]

Read More

Embracing Positive Friction in the Workplace

Ready for some HR buzzword analysis? For the past couple years, phrases like frictionless HR, frictionless candidate experience, friction in the […]

Read More

Partner with me


Get in touch today to find out more about how I can help your organization leverage HR and HCM technology to attract, onboard, retain and manage top talent.