Q: As a mid-level employee, I see a lot of situations that could be improved that never get addressed. Should I give unsolicited—but needed!—feedback to peers, or even worse, to my manager? How? I don’t want to overstep my bounds.
A: I like your thinking and believe you’re coming from a genuine, positive desire for improvement, but without knowing the specifics of your suggestions, I wouldn’t encourage you correct peers or offer unsolicited advice to senior managers. That being said, if what you’re seeing is unethical, illegal, a form of harassment, or against company policy, you should go to your manager—or straight to HR—to ensure that those things cease. For an organizational impact, make sure your own behavior is at its best and then lead by influence and example.
You can question some things in a respectful manner. I’m being tentative in not telling you to go full tilt at this because I don’t know your company’s norms. Leadership might be aware of the behavior you view as problematic but see it as within company norms. Or they’re actually unaware of these pockets of bad behavior and do need to be alerted to it. In this case, approach the situation indirectly—you can’t know their reaction and whether it could impact your job negatively. There’s a balance to strike—on one hand, there are reasons to speak up, but on the other hand, you need to be careful of possible negative impacts on your own career, particularly if your input comes from inexperience or lack of knowledge.
If you’re truly witnessing off-track performance, you can tactfully address it with peers and your manager. For example, if you overhear your colleague’s client calls, and there’s a significant pattern of unsuitable—or even damaging to the organization—conversations, absolutely take it to the manager. Avoid presenting yourself as a paragon of perfect customer calls, but you can say, “I overheard James on the phone, and he did an okay job, but I think with a little more training, he could be really effective. For example…” Be specific, don’t offer to provide the training, and don’t throw anyone under the bus—just focus on making positive recommendations. If your suggestion concerns organizational process changes you think leadership should consider, go into question-asking mode: “Have we ever considered XYZ in the client call process? I wonder if I’m missing something or if we’ve tried something like this before.” This way, you’re not throwing mud—you’re just presenting a positive inquiry and recognizing that you may not have all the information. Draw on your knowledge of the company as you do this. Does your organization care about hierarchy and formal reporting structures? Or does it only care that a good idea reaches senior leaders, regardless of who suggests it? Identify what will be most effective in your organization.
In a peer-to-peer situation, know that your feedback may not be welcome. If you do approach a colleague, maintain sensitivity in your communication. Take a question-asking or information-sharing stance: “I’ve seen that client issue approached this way, James. Have you ever tried that?” Remember: You don’t know better, you’re just sharing an alternative. The goal is to get the feedback accepted to see an effective change.
You mention giving your manager feedback. Again, ask questions: “I’ve seen some things that I’d like to understand, and I’d like your take on it.” See if there’s an action to take on direction from your manager. Create a dialogue, don’t just make pronouncements. This is a solid way to approach any manager. Ask questions rather than making judgmental statements or accusations. Many organizations hold skip meetings, where senior managers skip a level and meet with their direct reports’ team members, allowing leadership to get information from employees that isn’t filtered through the manager. In this situation, and if your manager isn’t responsive, you can take an advice-seeking position.
Your approach will vary situationally. For an issue of policy or unethical behavior, speak up. But oftentimes, junior employees think they know all the answers—and they don’t. Focus on your own behavior first, then ask questions, share information, and seek advice on other issues you see.