How do employees give feedback to their manager?

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The Manager by Designsm blog advocates for a new field called “Management Design”, in which managers engage in solid people and team management practices by design, rather than by accident.  An example the poor management design experienced today is that managers typically do not have very good channels for receiving performance feedback on their management skills.

I’ve recently explored how managers typically get feedback on their management skills:

Employees who quit

Attrition Rates

Management Surveys/360 degree feedback

Managers of Managers giving feedback to their managers

In none of these channels do managers receive feedback that is specific and immediate on their management actions, and as discussed in this blog, the more specific and immediate the feedback, the more artful the feedback is.  The more artful the feedback, the better the performance.  So the corollary is, the less artful the feedback, the worst the performance.  And managers have a spotty track record of performance.

Well, that leaves one group to explore:  Employees giving feedback to managers. Employees are excellent candidates to give feedback to managers, since they can provide specific examples, are immediately available to give the feedback on the manager’s actions and behaviors, and experience the impact of the manager’s managerial behavior the most.   In essence, a manager’s employees are the manager’s customers, as the employees use the manager’s services in helping them get their work done, and there is typically no shortage of ideas that employees have for improving the manager’s performance!  In a way, this is an amazing natural resource that is not really tapped into:  The employee’s ideas for improving how the manager manages.  The current models for how employees give feedback to their manager are not designed well for specificity and immediacy and do not tap into this natural resource.

The basic issue that prevents managers from getting feedback from their employees is that that managers have a power or authority over the employee, and any efforts of the employee to address a manager’s performance issue is, at its core, a big risk.  The manager, should he be resistant to the feedback, has numerous ways to retaliate.  So the risk is too big, and the employees tend to avoid having a performance feedback conversation to their manager – even though many want to!

This flaw in design creates a series of side channels for employees giving feedback to a manager.  Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Leaving the org: When an employee leaves, he can give feedback to the manager at that point.  The down-side is that if the manager changes behavior accordingly, the employee does not directly benefit, and it is easier just not to say anything in order to not burn any bridges.

Surveys/360 feedback: These are anonymous, but if the org is small, maybe not anonymous enough.  That is, if a manager has 5 employees, and they all give the same low score on, “My manager does not foster an atmosphere of trust”.  The manager, by definition, knows the response of each.  Untrustworthy atmosphere ensues.  Ramifications?  There’s a good chance.  The survey in this case has a stronger impact on employee’s life at work than the manager’s.  Not a bet most employees are willing to take.

General sentiment and atmosphere: Many managers operate on this vague plane of sensing the general atmosphere of the environment and team.  It’s just a sense of knowing how things are going.  When I talk about a “made-up” practice that managers engage in, this is an example.  There is no method to this, it is manager making up on his own what it is that is good and bad based on evidence that he selects.

Indirect Feedback (on meetings, results, metrics): Managers will use indicators other than feedback from their employees on how things are going.  They’ll perhaps do a survey after an all-team meeting.  They’ll look at other metrics and results, such as sales figures or operational metrics. While these are important, they don’t replace performance feedback, and by definition they are lagging indicators, and are vague and untimely.  If the metrics are good, however, at least you have that going for you!  But do you know what it was that you did as a manager that contributed to them?

Insider mole: Perhaps the most common, the manager identifies someone on the team with whom they have a trusting relationship, and can speak openly and candidly about how things are going, and what needs to be changed.  I suppose that this works, in that it does get information to the manager, but it is, by definition, indirect, so it loses its specificity and immediacy.  Also, it diminishes the overall level of trust, and established a narrowed communication path to the manager.  Finally, the “mole” may lose their ability to get info once he is found-out.   Then there’s the issue of favoritism. . . and actual accuracy of the indirect info. ..  

Run to Human Resources: In this scenario, the employee who needs to get something across to his manager, but doesn’t necessarily trust the manager to accept the feedback, has the recourse to go to the Human Resources department and talk to a representative there.  At this point, it is up to the HR department to decide what to do next.  It is not a guarantee that the information will get back to the manager, as the HR department may choose to simply note the issue and track it over time, to see if similar issues come up.  It is possible that the HR representative may engage in coaching to the manager, and this would be great, but it is not guaranteed, and the HR representative needs to be empowered to do so, have great skills in translating the complaint into actionable feedback.  If the manager doesn’t like the feedback, the manager could still engage in subtle or not-so-subtle retaliatory behaviors, so there has to be controls in place at the HR level to make sure this doesn’t happen.   So as performance feedback, it’s complicated and messy.  As a result, employees go to HR to report intolerable or questionable behavior, as in the case of harassment or unethical behavior, and is generally not seen as a way to help a manager improve performance.

Skip level discussions: How about talking to your boss’s boss?  The theory is that you can talk to your boss’s boss on how your manager is doing, and the boss’s boss gives the feedback.  This could happen, but the likelihood is similar to the HR department, and there are fewer controls or policies that will preserve your confidentiality or fear of recrimination from the boss (or both the boss and boss’s boss).  Highly risky.  When talking to the boss’s boss, employees typically focus on the positives and idea sharing, rather than provide specific feedback that identify ways to improve behaviors.

The manager asks for feedback: It’s tough being a manager, and sometimes a manager makes an effort to directly ask for feedback on her performance. “Please tell me how I’m doing – don’t hold back.”  This enlightened approach is refreshing, but still has its risks.

First, if the employee does not use behavior-based language, or use specific examples, the feedback would be just as useless as the un-artful manager giving low quality feedback to the employee.

Second, the employee may not be prepared to give feedback, and hasn’t thought through what to say.

Third, there still is a risk that the manager won’t like what the employee has to say, and could react negatively.  It’s a lose-lose situation for the employee, and the most likely behavior by the employee is to say, “Things are fine.”  In future blog posts, I’ll provide tips for how to move beyond this cover, and actually try to give feedback to the manager.

1 on 1 discussions: Managers who hold regular one-on-one meetings with their employees increase the chances of fostering in-depth, quality discussions that build trust and focus on work and performance.  Such meetings can engender a quality discussion that could lead to a conversation where the employee shares feedback to the manager on what and how the manager is doing.  This is perhaps the best venue for an employee to provide feedback to a manager on what to keep doing and what to do differently.  Trust has to be earned over time, and the mere action of one-on-one discussions does not guarantee receiving ongoing feedback.   The same risks still apply:  What if the manager doesn’t like what the employee has to say, and how does the employee say it to minimize this risk?  Are employees typically equipped for this kind of conversation?

None of the above: Then there’s the scenario of a manager never really seeking or obtaining feedback on how they are doing as a manager.  This can and does happen. Think about the managers you’ve had or situations where you’ve been in and let me know if you’ve been in a situation where it appeared that the manager had no input on how he or she was doing, and acted accordingly.  Please send your stories!

In my next blog post, I’ll provide a grid to help analyze what channels have the most hope for an employee to be able to provide feedback to a manager.  In future blog posts, I’ll provide concrete tips for how to give feedback to your manager!

Related Articles:

How to ask for feedback from your employees on your management skills (part 1)

How to ask for feedback from your employees on your management skills (part 2)

How to ask for feedback from your employees on your management skills (part 3)

The Art of Providing Feedback: Make it Specific and Immediate

Employees leaving bad managers – what kind of actionable feedback does this provide the manager?

Can organizations use attrition rates to improve manager performance? It’s tough to do

Using surveys to provide feedback to a manager: How effective is this?

Managers giving managers feedback on managing: How well is this done?

Why asking for loyalty discourages high performers

Tenets of Management Design: Focus on the basics, then move to style points

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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