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Criticize the boss in friendly terms

10 April 2013

Powerful people do not like to be criticized, particularly those with a somewhat unstable personality. This is one of the main findings of organizational psychologist Jana Niemann’s PhD research into the social factors that influence how people deal with negative feedback. It is therefore sensible to put a positive slant on feedback to powerful people. In other words, be nice to your boss. Niemann will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 18 April 2013.

During her placement with two coaches Niemann noticed how often people said they found it difficult to tell it straight to their manager. ‘It’s a real shame, because if a manager doesn’t know what’s going wrong, he can’t do anything to change this. I also found that bosses find it difficult to ask their staff for honest feedback, which is also a pity, because feedback is an important factor in your performance at work.’ As giving and receiving feedback has a great impact on how people perform within organizations, Niemann decided to conduct further research into this.

Power, mistrust and insecurity

The most important factors that influence how people respond to negative feedback are power, mistrust, personality and the relationship between giver and receiver. What is striking here is that powerful people whose emotional state is not particularly stable react very badly to negative feedback from their subordinates. Niemann says, ‘They get angry and find the person giving the feedback not very nice and incompetent. And they don’t take the feedback on board. They probably experience the feedback as a personal attack. Powerful people with a more stable personality are more relaxed in their response.’

Positive slant

As it is so important for the boss to know what is going on and how things could improve, Niemann advises giving indirect feedback to powerful people. ‘Do it in a friendly way, dress it up, make it less blunt. Powerful people will then react much more positively. I know that this is difficult for the Dutch, because it’s in their nature to like to be direct, but you will achieve more with your powerful boss if you couch your criticism in positive terms. Otherwise the feedback becomes too much to digest, and the only thing you achieve is a boss who is angry with you.’

Dealing with negative feedback

People who are not in positions of power also find it difficult to take negative feedback. What Niemann noticed was that their reaction is not influenced by personality type, as was the case with powerful people. ‘If these people receive negative feedback, they do show that they are angry or disappointed, but this is not related to their personality. It is clear that people do take negative feedback to heart and consequently find it difficult to ask for feedback. It also seems that tough criticism does not really motivate people to try harder in future.’

Coaching and training

She thinks it would be a good idea for organizations to appoint people to management roles who are emotionally stable enough to take negative feedback. ‘Another option would be to provide coaching for people who have difficulty with this, so that they learn how to deal with what their employees present them with. Yet you want employees in an organization to be honest and open with each other and to dare to ask each other and the boss for feedback. It would be advisable to invest in training programmes that teach people how to give and receive feedback in an appropriate fashion in order to improve this process.’

Curriculum Vitae

Jana Niemann (1983, Ankum, Germany) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen, where she also conducted her PhD research at the Department of Organizational Psychology in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. The title of her dissertation is ‘Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions, but It Can Be Hard to Digest. A Psychological Perspective on Feedback Seeking and Receiving’. Her supervisors were Prof. N.W. Van Yperen, Prof. B.M. Wisse and Prof. K Sassenburg. Her joint supervisor was Dr D. Rus. Her research was funded by the NWO. Niemann has been working as a lecturer at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences since September 2012.

Note for the editor

Jana Niemann, telephone: 050-3636922, email

Last modified:07 June 2016 08.37 a.m.
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