How to Give Feedback (When You Aren’t the Boss)

Giving feedback is a great way to add value to your organization and build your personal brand. But when you don’t have the formal title of “boss,” it’s easy to be perceived as overly critical.

Even if you are a formal leader, with direct reports, you’ve likely recognized that feedback can be a tricky dance. We don’t want to give too much, because we want people to have autonomy and own their role. We don’t want to give too little, because we want people to feel supported and guided.

So, when should you give feedback? The answer is less often than you think. You don’t need to give feedback on everything. Instead, you need to give feedback on things that matter.

These high-priority moments typically fall into one of two buckets:

First, give feedback when you’re asked. People with deep subject matter expertise, a lot of experience, or people who are natural leaders are often asked for feedback because, well, they give great feedback. If someone asks you for feedback, take it as a compliment and help them if you can.

Second, consider giving feedback on high-stakes things, even if you aren’t asked. Give feedback on things like product launches, big customer proposals, or other initiatives that could really impact your team or organization if not done well. Be careful, you don’t need to endlessly point out the mistakes of your colleagues. But if you do know one or two things that could help, it’s of service to everyone if you let them know kindly.

Here are three tips for giving feedback (even when you aren’t the boss):

  1. Walk the other person through your thought process. It’s more work for you in the moment, but it serves you better in the long run. Instead of saying, “This proposal doesn’t focus on enough value, add an ROI,” you can say, “If I were the customer, I’m not sure I would see the value in the methodology section of your proposal.” One is a critique of the other person’s work. The other is a perspective that will help them. When you’re giving feedback as an informal leader, you want to help your colleague arrive at your same conclusion (instead of forcing it on them).
  1. Over-index on positive feedback. You don’t need to blow smoke and praise something that’s not praiseworthy, but good work unfortunately often goes unnoticed.  If you are a high achiever, your mind is probably filled with ideas for your team’s output. And in a constant quest for more progress, we can miss the wins right in front of our faces. Be sure you’re lifting up the ideas and success of those around you more than you are offering opportunities for improvement.
  1. Ask for feedback yourself! If you’re not formally in charge, it’s easy to assume that asking for feedback will undermine your expertise or your credibility, but that’s not true. The best leaders, both formal and informal, rely heavily on those around them.  If you have an important project or a challenging customer scenario or an ambitious goal, asking for feedback will help you excel. It also shows people that you have a growth mindset.