my horrible boss’s coach wants me to give her feedback

A reader writes:

I have a very, very difficult boss. The kind of boss that my friends, who have never met her, have nightmares about. Based on what I think was my recommendation to her boss, she is now receiving executive coaching. I am meeting with her coach tomorrow to give some 360 feedback. The coach has sent us a list of questions (what are her strengths/what advice would you give her/first impressions, etc.). My boss has told me and the rest of the team that this coach is to “help her get to the next level” and that because I am the most senior person on the team (a full year — we’ve had a tremendous amount of turnover) she will really only be looking for my responses, since I also have “the biggest mouth.”

Given her previous reaction to people’s exit interviews, etc., I know she will be trying to tease my information out of this review (which was promised to be given to her as an aggregate) and will make snarky comments like “Since one of you thinks I am ‘anxious’ or whatever…”

What’s the best way for me to proceed? Should I assume that this coach is a professional and has dealt with this before and answer her questions honestly? Should I just cover my own butt and be very complimentary?

For more background: I am personally, desperately looking for a job. I do not plan on being here long term, but my boss does not know that. And the organization as a whole, never fires anyone. I very much doubt that even if the exec recommends it, that my boss would be fired or moved elsewhere. So, I’m not sure what the best outcome of this actually is.

Well, it really depends on what you’re motivated to do.

On one hand, it’s not your responsibility to help your boss improve her management style, particularly if you feel that there’s risk to you in providing feedback. You’re under no obligation whatsoever to take personal risk in this situation.

On the other hand, if these types of bosses and their employers never hear the truth, they will continue to wreak havoc on employees wherever they go (keeping me in business but making everyone else miserable). And in this case, you have a chance to offer feedback in aggregate, which keeps it semi-anonymous.

So I think it depends on how bad you think the fall-out will be. If it’s going to be limited to the occasional snarky comment, that might be worth tolerating (particularly since it sounds like you’re already tolerating much worse). But if it’s likely to have an impact on significant parts of your work life or on things like future references, there’s no incentive here for you to participate. So I’d want to know more about the likely repercussions.

Whatever you decide, though, I would definitely not just resort to being very complimentary. That will undermine the whole point of her having a coach and potentially make your life more difficult if she decides that she doesn’t need to make any changes because, see, her direct reports love her. So if you decide not to be candid, I would instead say something like this:  “I think Jane very much needs feedback on her management style, but I’m not willing to risk giving it. She has a track record of being punitive and petty with people and I’ve never seen her take feedback well, and I’m not comfortable jeopardizing my standing at work by giving the sort of feedback that you’re asking for here.” Hell, you could even add, “I’ve worked with her long enough to know that my candid answers would set off a witch hunt.”

This will probably prompt the coach to try to convince you that your feedback will be anonymous and that your concerns are all the more reason why having input is so important. At that point, I think you could have a fairly candid conversation with the coach about your reluctance, and then decide what you want to do based on your feeling from that discussion …. and if you hold firm on opting out, you’ll still have given her enough information for her to know that there are Major, Major Issues.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Anna*

    That’s what I’d say, too: if you think candor will fly, go with it, but if it won’t, say that you’re keeping your trap shut.

  2. Jenn*

    Been there, and I completely agree. Any worthwhile coach will construe your unwillingness to give this feedback as a Big Red Flag.

    Good luck on the job search!

  3. Lexy*

    Totally agree. Mostly I wanted to comment to say that I first got the headline a little backwards and I thought it said “Horrible boss’s coach wants to give me 360 degree feedback” Now that would be TRULY outrageous (truly truly truly)

  4. Louis*

    The thing is not to waste a chance to improve the situation, but also not to try to fix everything at once.

    If you just dump a list of bad thing, then the person will turn defensive and notting will get through.

    But if you give positive feedback on the things your boss does do well (there must be something, no one is 100% bad) then maybe you will be able to provide negative feedback in one area and have a chance that it will trigger some change.

    1. Kelly O*

      Lexy, the thing is, in this instance the OP is not talking directly to the person, but to a coach, who will then in turn help that person out.

      So, theoretically there is no need to “sandwich” the negative. And if your positive statement amounts to “well, sometimes she’s quite the snazzy dresser” then you’re not really helping.

      The problem is, whether this coach will be truly anonymous or not. Maybe once the OP meets the coach she’ll get a better feel (and maybe even saying what Alison mentioned at the end “I’m really concerned about the fallout if anything I say ever gets back, as we’ve had uncomfortable situations before”) and then have a better gut instinct about what to do.

      And OP if you’re reading this, you have my sympathies.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I’d be really reluctant in the OP’s position. The whole point of the exercise is that her boss *will* get this feedback, and the boss is going to know that people have, um, concerns. Somebody as punitive as this boss sounds is quite likely to take it out on everybody if it’s too generalized to hang on one person.

  5. Angela*

    Unless I had another job lined up, there is no way I would offer anything but compliments. I’ve seen too many of these situations blow up. Remember-the Coach will be out of there in a few weeks-you will have to deal with her witchhunt for the next few years.

      1. Angela*

        Agreed. We had a social worker come and do a group meeting with staff regarding complaints against upper management. From the social worker’s report and description of complainers, upper management was able to identify who said what.

        1. Anony Mouse*

          I like the third-party surveys where they don’t ask your name, but ask for your department, years of service, level, etc. until it’s pretty clear that you’d be the only one fitting that description.

        2. Katie*

          I’ve experienced this, too. I spent a year paying for a critique that was supposed to be anonymous, and only got out of it by getting a new manager.

        3. Jeb-Ray Gumpeater*

          Ha! There was a Dilbert cartoon about this exact thing a few years ago. The pointy-haired boss says to Dilbert, “So, the anonymous survey says you don’t trust management. What’s up with that?”

  6. BCW*

    I’ve only done the 360 thing once, and it was for a good manager who was also able to give feedback. However, I’ve been known go give “feedback” to my bosses’ boss on occasion too. It was more just there were issues that the 2 of us had where another voice was needed.

    But, I think it also depends on how many people are giving the feedback. If its like 2, I can see how that would be awkward. If there are 5 or more then I think it would be really hard to just make these comments to everyone all the time.

  7. Anony Mouse*

    I’d be curious how big the team is, too. If there are three people meeting with the coach, that is way different from ten, or even six, as far as how easily the boss can figure things out.

  8. Yup*

    It’s definitely tricky, I wish you luck in your decision. I was in a similar situation once and offered the following: “I’d be happy to talk to you about Boss’s strengths and successes, but I’m not sure that my more constructive observations would be heard in the positive way they’re intended.” The consultant got the message, but the top boss was concerned and asked me point blank anyway.

  9. Lilybell*

    Cover your butt! That’s my advice. We do 360s, and they are supposed to be anonymous. However, one of our top people was so angry about some of the comments made on hers that she told the president she would quit unless they told her who made the statements. So even though we were assured these were confidential, they outed the person and he got fired – simply for criticizing someone’s management style in a non-nasty manner. It was insane.

    Since then, I have never filled out an employee survey and I have been nothing but complimentary on everyone’s 360s. It’s just not worth it. My company is so upset that no one fills out our internal surveys that they’ve resorted to sending out multiple plaintive emails bemoaning that we can’t change for the better if no one gives their honest opinions. Um, what? Then don’t break your own privacy policies! I like Amy’s advice about saying you are worried about retaliation, but I would trust my gut if she seems like she might tell your boss what you said.

    1. Sonata*

      Lilybell, thanks for the heads up from an insider. Do you (or Alison, of course!) have any suggestions for company officials who suspect there’s a major problem in the ranks? How can they guard employee confidentiality and get to the bottom of the problems?

  10. KT*

    You definitely, definitely, need to proceed with caution, but I wouldn’t be quick to assume your comments won’t be taken seriously. Your company is investing a lot of time and money by hiring a coach for your boss. Your boss may dismiss your remarks, but your boss’s boss will likely take them seriously. And since your boss’s boss took your words seriously enough to warrant hiring a coach, he or she will likely back you up if your boss lashes out based on feedback you provide.

  11. Kristin*

    I’ve been in a similar situation (only it was a very long, anonymous survey). I just gave honest feedback – good and bad. On the parts where I typed answers, I tried to word it so it wouldn’t be obvious who wrote it (as in, “I’ve observed with some new employees, boss tends to expect the learning curve to be shorter than it actually is…” even though I was one of those new employees.)

    I heard back (through a third-hand source) that my boss was really surprised at the survey results, but I did notice a change in her behavior after she got the results. Even if you’re planning on leaving – there are other people in your company who want to stay, and if no one gives feedback, there’s no way things will change/get better.

  12. Joey*

    If your assumptions are right it looks like your previous feedback wasn’t in vain. I’d also consider how serious they’re taking the 360 process. In other words is there a sense of integrity to the process? Or is it a going through the motions sort of thing? If you do decide to give feedback the best advice I can give is don’t turn it into a gripe session. If you decide not to give feedback thats fine but you’re going to lose some of your right to gripe about her. Meaning if they’re asking for your feedback and you decline how can you expect any negative behavior to stop?

    I think it certainly is your responsibility to help your boss improve her management style, but only if you’re not going to be crucified for it. There’s no quicker way to find out exactly what the troops want/need than by asking them. But they lose all right to feedback when it’s not appreciated.

  13. Harryv*

    First, I would make sure that your feedback is given *in confidence*. I had provided feedback onto to found out that it was simply forwarded to the concerned person. Had I known that was going to happen, I would structure it differently.

  14. Anonymous*

    It’s a good sign that the company has spent the money to hire a coach in hopes of correcting a bad manager’s bad habits. That said, the last time I gave critical feedback about my manager to my boss^2 under the guise of anonymity (they approached me), I got called out in my review meeting by my boss. Nothing on paper, of course…just a really passive aggressive (more on the aggressive side) confrontation which was loads of fun. And nothing changed in my boss’s behavior. The next time I was asked for feedback, I explained to my boss^2 that I had nothing to share given that last time around, I was Called To Task for it.

    Since nothing like that has happened with your company, I think you should sit down with the coach (if you can) and have a conversation about your concerns rather than filling out a survey. That way, it’s easier to give context, and you can also get a feel for if this coach is competent and trustworthy. Personally, I would share the feedback – especially if the company is trying to do well by its team.

  15. Lanya*

    This situation is a little different from the one the OP finds him/herself in, but I have to share.

    I once worked at a nonprofit company of about 15 employees. The CEO was the worst boss I have ever had in my life – verbally and emotionally abusive, conniving, and manipulative. She decided one day to have us all fill out an anonymous employee survey, and at the first biweekly company meeting after the survey deadline, she went through each survey one by one – reading the comments out loud and criticizing or making excuses for any comment that was negative.

    Because the company was so small, it was painfully easy to tell who had written what, and all of us sat red-faced in the room as the survey “discussion” went on and on. I would have walked out if not for fear of being fired. That day marked a new low in employee morale. Three of us left a few months later and several more followed.

    The moral of the story is…IMO…if the boss is the vindictive type, it’s best to protect your own butt and not share any information that could come back to bite you, even if it could help future employees. It’s not worth the repercussions.

    1. Another anon*

      This. We do a standard Gallup engagement survey at my company. The exec in charge of our department mocked us for answering the question “do you have the necessary tools to do your job” with degrees of “no”. In a team meeting he picked up pencils and said “is it pencils? Who needs pencils?”. We were horrified because obviously the question was aimed at more than office supplies.

  16. Mike C.*

    Hows does this coach not realize that there might be hesitation in this situation when the boss is so terrible? It’s called empathy.

  17. EM*

    If I were in this situation, I would say to the consultant, “I don’t really have any comments to make,” and give a tight-lipped smile. As a previous commenter mentioned, if the consultant is worth anything, they will see that as a red flag.

    It really is fairly easy to figure out who said what based on words used, style, etc. I wouldn’t trust a consultant to be savvy enough and talented enough to reword everything so that it really is anonymous.

  18. Employment lawyer*

    DO NOT trust the coach. DO NOT talk to the coach.

    You don’t pay them.
    You don’t hire them.
    They don’t sign any documents promising confidentiality–and if they did, they might break them anyway.
    They also don’t guarantee that you will not suffer (openly or indirectly) “adverse employment consequences” from your statements.

    There is very little to be gained by talking to the coach. There is a LOT to be lost by talking to the coach. Ergo, don’t do it.

    The best and safest thing to say is simply “I don’t feel comfortable giving any specific commentary.” Alternatively, you can give some very generic statements, i.e., “Like many people, Boss sometimes fails to communicate effectively.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this is probably a bit too extreme. You’re certainly not obligated to talk to the coach, but there ARE cases where a company makes a credible case that feedback will be kept anonymous and that it will truly be used for good. In those cases, it’s reasonable to talk with the person. I wouldn’t put a blanket ban on it.

      1. a lawyer*

        Sure, there are some cases. This isn’t one of them.

        When I worked at a large multinational company which did 360 reviews, it was relatively safe–the reviews were wide; the reviewers were all on target; everyone got them so they weren’t focused on one person; and all the employees and supervisors talked about them so the company had an immense incentive to avoid fallout.

        In that situation I would be inclined to avoid the blanket rule, but even there I would caution people against complete honesty.

        I really think that you may be underestimating the risk to the employee here.

  19. Anonymous*

    I am reminded of the hilarious chapter of “The Dilbert Principle”, which discusses the mutually assured destruction method of 360 degree reviews…aaaand off I go chortling quitely to myself!

  20. Tim C.*

    What shocks me is the most senior person in the department has only been there a whole year, they have had large turn-over, and taken feedback from exit interviews. Yet this manager is still there! This means more than one person is willing to quit their job to avoid this person. Where is HR in all this? I forgot, they will back management at all costs.

    One big reason to not cooperate is that they seldom fire anyone. If you are brutally honest, you have to deal with a pissed off boss who may or may not know who said what. Bottom line is everyone is miserable. The OP is ready looking for another job, the smartest decision to make.

    1. Another Emily*

      I agree. It seems like they’re using this 360 review instead of doing the much more difficult thing that they should be doing – putting this manager on an improvement plan and telling her if she doesn’t shape up she could lose her job.
      Even if the coach is great and totally professional, is the process going to be worth participating in? This manager probably knows how infrequently people get fired at the company.

  21. Your Mileage May Vary*

    I almost always have “the biggest mouth” in my workplaces. What that actually means is that I’m direct and not afraid to call people on their BS, but not intentionally rude. A plus for me is that I also have a thick skin. If you, OP, also have a thick skin and can handle the boss saying snarky things, then you should go for it. You said people are seldom fired at your job so if you can reasonably expect that your boss won’t be able to come up with things that would put your job in jeopardy, then all you have to mitigate is your boss’ unprofessional comments.

    I would tell the coach the exact truth, prefaced with Alison’s statement, “she has a track record of being punitive and petty with people and I’ve never seen her take feedback well.” Then when boss comes to me and asks if I said that she does/is [undesirable things], I’d say, “Yeah, I said that. And I would have said it to your face if you showed any sign of being able to take feedback.” At that point, any response she has (other than “I see your point”) will have my response being some form of “This is what I mean when I say you do not take feedback well.”

    So, if I were in your shoes, I’d take this review with the coach as a golden opportunity on a silver platter. If you say nothing, nothing changes. But you have the chance to change everything if you speak up.

    But I’m a bit of a bitch at work, so YMMV :)

    1. Sonata*

      Your response was so refreshing! My coworkers seldom confront anything. They’ll say plenty behind someone’s back but will rarely be upfront, which has led to a quagmire of unsolved problems – both petty and major. So HOORAY for your direct approach!

    2. nonegiven*

      Sounds like my sister. I once heard her say, “They don’t like me at work. I have this unfortunate tendency to say what I think.”
      She also told a new guy, a former civil service worker, when she had to give his inadequate work back to him to redo, “Close enough for government work ain’t gonna get it here.”

  22. Rana*

    Something to consider: telling the coach that you do not feel comfortable or safe giving feedback *is* a form of feedback. Without even going into specifics, you’ve provided useful information. Indeed, it could be argued that this is the most useful feedback you could provide, because anything else that the coach may have to say to your boss needs to be filtered through an understanding that the boss is unable to handle feedback from the people she manages in a mature and productive manner.

  23. JLH*

    I’d recommend exactly what Alison says: either give honest feedback, or say why you’re not willing to give honest feedback. Please speak up here. When people don’t speak up about such things, they’re almost guaranteed to continue. You could be saving yourself and future employees a lot of trouble.

  24. Joe Schmoe*

    I had a boss like this too. In fact, someone called the ethics hotline on him and an investigation was done. By investigation, I mean that calls were made from Ethics & Compliance to all of us in my department. We were asked things like “How would you describe his management style?” To which I responded “Ha, what management style?” Mind you, we had been asked to do a review of our boss already and he had been told our comments like OP’s in aggregate. He would say things like “Well since someone says I’m XYZ, I will do ABC now” and things never got any better.

    So after the investigation (after the review had already been done) it was determined that we needed a “team building” session with HR. Thank heavens I had applied for and gotten a job within the company at another location and this “team building” session was going to be held on my last day at this location.

    Well, we should have gotten up and walked out of the “team building” session when we realized it was nothing more than a “bash the boss” session. Yes, I sat in on it because my coworkers that were still going to be there asked me to. I was honest, we all were for the most part. However, nothing was done – he is still in charge of the employees and still using the same horrible management tactics.

    So, yes, give candid feedback, but don’t expect it to result in any changes at all – go ahead and find another job.

Comments are closed.