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

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This is the latest in a series of blog posts exploring how managers currently obtain feedback on their performance as people managers.  Employees would seem to have a lot of opinions and ideas for managers in this area.  The questions is – how do employees give feedback to a manager?   Previously, I explored the most common ways for managers to get feedback from their employees: “voting with your feet” and “tracking attrition rates.” I conclude that these don’t constitute performance feedback, because they are vague and delayed, rather than specific and immediate.

OK, so how about management surveys and 360 degree feedback?

Let’s take a look on how well these provide feedback to a manager.

Management Surveys: This is when an organization sends a survey to a manager’s employees (both direct reports and extended team) to rate the manager on a scale (say, 1 to 5) in relation to different areas a manager should have an impact.  You may find survey items such as:

“My manager creates an atmosphere of trust”

“My manager listens to my ideas”

“My manager communicates the organization strategy well”

Then, once this survey is administered, the data is collated and provides a report to the manager, for both the direct reports and the extended team.  This kind of survey may be conducted annually, and may or may not be used on the manager’s annual performance review.  Maybe.  If the manager has fewer than five direct reports, then the survey results might not even be shared with the manager to protect confidentiality of the respondents.

So how well does this provide performance feedback to the manager?  Well, not very well.  Loyal readers of this blog know that I advocate specific and immediate feedback in order for it to be artful performance feedback.  In this case, a management survey is bad art.

First, it is not specific. Look at the survey item, “My manager creates an atmosphere of trust. ” Lets say that all of the manager’s employees give the manager the lowest score.  Obviously the manager doesn’t create an atmosphere of trust.  That is the feedback, “You don’t create an atmosphere of trust” all the employees say.  Loud and clear!  But what did the manager do to create an untrustworthy environment?  We don’t know.  What should the manager do differently?  The manager gets to guess.  Perhaps the manager will try to address this with his employees and try to figure out what needs to be done differently– but we already know that the employees don’t trust the manager.  So good luck with that.

The basic problem is that the feedback does not include behavior-based language, and does not provide specific events or actions that the manager engaged in to create that mistrust.  As a result, the manager will most likely discount the vague feedback as useless, uninformed and not relevant.  Or the manager will guess as to what he did incorrectly, and the guess will be incorrect a high percentage of time, and perhaps even go things worse.  We’ll find out on next year’s survey . . .

Second, it is not immediate. The survey asks employees to consider the managers’ work over the course of an entire year, so responses could reflect incidents that occurred up to a year ago.  In addition, by the time the survey is administered, collated and reported, the delay is probably another three months.  Then, there’s the delay where the manager has to think about the results, guess as to what he did differently, and take action – probably another month or two.  And the action is still a guess.  And the manager could claim that he already took steps to improve anyway.  Great.

When I say immediate – I’m talking about within a week or so.  After that, the impact of the feedback fades.  Perhaps the action has an impact further down the road.  In that case, the feedback on the impact should be within a week or so.  So the management survey feedback comes in much, much later, and at an arbitrary time dictated by the survey schedule, not near the impact of the manager’s actions.

The upshot is that the management survey is effective at obtaining aggregate data, and will be useful for coming up with a new management development strategy.  Dare I say – perhaps the survey could spur some improved management design?

What about 360 degree feedback programs? 360 feedback programs can be administered more frequently – perhaps quarterly.  As the name implies, such programs are specifically created to provide feedback, not just from employees, but from customers and partners as well.

The same critiques that I list for management surveys apply to the degree that the feedback received is vague and delayed.  Most 360 degree feedback systems are anonymous, so that means that they are, by definition, vague (if it was specific, than it wouldn’t be so anonymous).  If it is done quarterly, it still doesn’t quite meet that “immediacy” bar.

360 degree feedback programs are designed to provide feedback to employees, and to create a culture of providing feedback, so I’m generally supportive of such programs!  They are often described as a way to aid the ongoing development of employees and managers, mostly in generalized areas such as, “Communication skills” and “Leadership” and tracking this over time can be helpful.    However, such programs do not provide adequately for specific and immediate performance feedback to managers, and don’t provide it in behavior-based language that then translates to new behaviors that purposefully drive toward improved performance.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how managers of managers give performance feedback to their managers.

Have you used Management Surveys or 360 degree feedback programs?  How specific and immediate was the feedback?

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

An example of giving specific and immediate feedback and a frightening look into the alternatives

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

A tool to analyze the greater forces driving your employee’s performance

The Cost of Low Quality Management

Management Design:  The “designs” we have now: Send them to training (part 1)

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Send them to training (part 2)

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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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