More reasons the big boss’s feedback on an employee is useless

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Perhaps I’m obsessing about this scenario too much, but I just can’t get out of my head the damage that managers of managers cause when they start assessing employees not directly reporting to them.  I call this “tagging” an employee.

In a previous post, I describe the moment where a “big boss” (the employee’s manager’s manager) meets with an employee (or even just hears something about an employee or sees a snapshot of the employee’s work) and provides an assessment of the employee. “That employee really knows what she’s doing!” “That employee doesn’t seem to have his head in it.”

The problem?  There are many:

–It rates the employee on behaviors not directly related to doing the job, but it’s based on an abstracted conversation about the work or a limited impression of the employee.

–It puts the manager in the middle in a situation where it would seem appropriate to correct the employee, even when it is inappropriate.

I describe what the manager ought to do about this here. But I’m still obsessed with the peculiar angst that this kind of indirect feedback will create in the employee – even when the “feedback” is good.  So before I dive into my obsession, my advice to the managers of managers out there: Don’t provide assessments on an employee.  Keep it to yourself. If you are really into assessing an employee’s value, you have to do the work of direct observation of work performance.

Now, let’s look at this “feedback” from the employee’s perspective and the damage it causes in an organization:

When a big boss starts trying to identify the top performers and the bottom performers based on their limited interactions, here is a survey of the damage it causes:

Makes employees one-dimensional: The employee immediately transforms from a multi-talented, hard-working, problem-solving contributor to whatever the “tag” is.  This is bad even if the tag is good!  If the tag is “hard working”, it diminishes the problem-solving, multi-talented part. It also creates a cloud around what the employee does the whole time at work, and instead puts a simplistic view of the employee’s value.

Assumes that the employee is like that all the time: Similarly, if the employee does a particular thing that gets the big boss’s notice, then that is the thing that the employee has to live up to or live down.  For example, if the employee does a great presentation, that is what the employee is seen as being good at – the presentation, and the employee is expected to be presenting all the time to have value.  There’s no visibility into the teamwork, project management, collaboration, technical insights, or creativity that went into the presentation.  Just the presentation.   Then if the person is not presenting all the time, then perhaps they are slacking off?  That’s what the big boss might think!

Manager is beholden to the big boss’s assessment: The sycophantic problem.  If your big boss says that your employee is “a real go-getter,” then you have to either agree or disagree, right? If you agree, you are beholden to the one-dimensional assessment provided above, and if you disagree, you risk being tagged by the boss as not being a “team player.”  So when it’s between two bad choices, it is typical for the manager to sell out his employee with the big boss’s assessment, and let the junk roll downhill.

Indirect and shadowy nature of it: If a big boss likes to make assessments, it is by definition indirect.  It then becomes shadowy as well, because the manager in the middle may or may not share it with the employee, her peers, or set the record straight with the big boss.  You can see the sinewy paths of the information as it winds around the organization, tagging employees with vague assessments and value judgments of their ability and performance.  It may stick here, disappear there, go nowhere or go anywhere.  It’s completely unmanaged (ironic for a manager of manager) and of course it’s not documented anywhere.  

No time, opportunity or specific issues for the employee to respond: When the tag hits, there is no way to respond.  Do you go straight to the big boss?  Do you go to your manager to ask the manager to do something about it?  Do you keep doing what you are doing, and not worry about it?  Do you “re-do” what created the tag initially?  What is it, exactly, that needs to be changed?  The employee is in a bind, since there is something out there, you would like to address it, but there is no channel, mechanism, or specific issue at which to respond.  This causes angst and hurts productivity.

Encourages dishonesty, spin and a fractured picture of reality: Employees know that they are going to be tagged by the big boss whenever they are put in front of the big boss.  So it’s important to create the impression you want to make, and employees will put a lot of effort into creating the aura of greatness.  So the act of big boss tagging is actually a signal and encouragement that employees make a lot of effort creating spin, manipulating data, and creating the impression of success instead of actually creating success.  This, I believe, is at the core of many efforts by employees to “manage up.”

Too much is concentrated on such a small time frame – and it’s not likely what the core job is: An employee’s exposure to the boss’s boss is, by definition, limited.  So it all comes down to those precious moments where the employee’s work is assessed by the big boss.  And it isn’t usually related to the work at hand.  For example, let’s say you are a star software developer on your team and you are asked to present your project to your big boss.  You are not being assessed on your development skills (why they hired you), but how well you present to your boss.  If your presentation sucks, but your software code is great, it doesn’t matter.  You created the wrong impression, and you are now tagged as a “bad presenter” and, by extension, a low performer.

Based on emotions rather than data: The big boss is most likely to make an assessment based on limited inputs and not on data.  You may be someone who consistently produces, but if you do something or say something that your big boss doesn’t like, it doesn’t matter what you produce.  The big boss makes the assessment based on an emotional response, and not the ongoing data related to your job performance.

Cannot prove otherwise through actions: Because the assessment is based on emotions, the employee is not able to resolve the issue through actions.  The only choice is to resolve the actions through emotions.  If you are tagged with the “not loyal” tag, this forces the employee to do elaborate gestures to prove that her loyalty is indeed strong.

Big boss does not like to be wrong: Due to the concentration of power of the big boss, the big boss does not like to be wrong.  If the tag is wrong, it really doesn’t matter, the employee kind of has to go along with it.  It would probably take some elaborate efforts to reverse it, but you are still contradicting the big boss in some way.  And do you think that your manager is going to stick up for you?  Even if the manager has a much more nuanced view of your performance, it isn’t going to make much of a difference, because now the manager has to contradict the boss, who has moved on to tagging other things.  Ugh.  This is a pain!

Takes the role of managing out of the manager’s hands: Let’s say the big boss sees an employee as a low performer, but the manager knows more about the employee’s performance.  It doesn’t matter, since the big boss has done the job of evaluating the employee’s performance.  Should the manager even bother to evaluate the employee’s performance?  After all, the manager could come to a different conclusion than the big boss.

This leads me to conclude that if you are the big boss, or manager of managers, you need to remove yourself from the task of assessing your employees without a systematic assessment input by your manager.  You need to avoid making generalizations based on the limited input of an employee, and you definitely need to make sure you avoid assessing an employee’s value based on presentations to you, since it is a presentation about their work, and not their work itself.

The big boss needs to have visibility of what the larger team capability is, but doing the assessment herself is a shortcut that will create undesirable results.

Have you seen the upper level manager start phantom-assessing lower level employees in your organization?  What has your organization done about it?  Am I obsessing about this scenario too much, or is this something that you see as a problem in your organization?

For you budding management designers out there, what structures have you put in place that discourage this big boss tagging process?

Related articles:

On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees

What to do when your boss gives feedback on your employee? That’s a tough one, so let’s try to unwind this mess.

What a manager can do if the big boss puts a tag on an employee

The Performance Management Process: Were You Aware of It?

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

Tips for how managers should use indirect sources of information about employees

What to do when you receive a customer complaint about your employee’s performance

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 1)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 2)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 3)

Helpful tip for managers: Keep a performance log

How to have a feedback conversation with an employee when the situation is complex

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Avoid using value judgments

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

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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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