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

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Here’s the scenario:

Your employee meets with your boss for a “skip level” meeting.  After the meeting, the employee’s boss’s boss (your boss) tells you what a sharp employee you have.

Or, let’s say that your boss tells you that your employee needs to “change his attitude” and “has concerns about your employee.”  This is very direct feedback about the employee, and it comes from an excellent authority (your boss), and if you disagree with it, you disagree with your boss.

But this information is entirely suspect. Whether the feedback from the “big boss” is positive or negative, the only thing it reveals is how the employee performed during the meeting with the boss.  And unless your employee’s job duty is to meet with your boss, it actually has nothing to do with the expected performance on the job.  So if the feedback is negative, do you spend time trying to correct your employee’s behavior during the time the employee meets with the big boss, when it isn’t related to the employee’s job duties?

In addition, the big boss often prides him or herself on the ability to cut through things and come to conclusions quickly, succinctly, and immediately.  The big boss will come to a conclusion about the employee based on the data provided in the one-on-one meeting, and will expect this conclusion to be corroborated by you and everyone else.

The big boss, in this process, will put a tag on the employee, whatever it is.  Here are some examples of tags:



Not a go-getter


Not aware of the issues

Could be a problem

. . .or, the dreaded, ambiguous, “I’m not sure about him.”

What’s worse, since the “tag” originated with the big boss, it will likely stick.

Sound familiar?  This is why employees get so geared up, worked up, and keyed up for meetings with their boss’s boss, a.k.a., the “big boss.”  What is said during that meeting will essentially give the employee a “tag” and the “tag” has to be positive, since it has implications for job security, career opportunities, pay increases, and job satisfaction.

You’ll notice that these “tags” are value judgment-based and generalizations, neither of which are useful in helping drive performance of an employee forward.  Whether positive or negative, these tags do not have a relationship to what the employee does on the job, and whether what is done is helping or hurting the organization.  The tag is based on guesses of the essence of the employee and not on the behaviors on the job, and have no role in the performance management process.

Do you give feedback based on the “tag”?

No.  However, the dynamic with the “big boss” makes it seem like the manager of the employee is now somehow expected to do something about whatever that tag is.  If the tag is positive, then the manager wants to report it to the employee.  If the tag is negative, then the manager feels obliged to somehow correct this.  If the tag is, “The employee is not bought in to what we trying to do,” now the manager seems to have to intervene in some way.  The manager is has to somehow correct this tag.

The problem is that this is something that is not correctable.  It is entirely unclear and not observed what the employee did to earn this tag, and it is not clear what the impact is of this tag. It is impossible for the manager to give performance feedback, and what feedback is provided is not based on the employee’s performance of job duties.  How does the conversation start?  “Our director says that you don’t seem quite into your job. . .  we need to correct this.”  This is a mess and a waste of time.

So to those “big bosses” out there who think that they are helping by assessing the value of the employee to the employee’s manager, be aware that this is not helping!  In fact, the big boss is providing a distraction to the employee, the manager, and the big boss as well.  And probably the rest of the team, as the residual output and stress gets discussed as word spreads on the team of the fallout from these kinds of big boss assessments.

The manager armed with knowledge of “the tag” should not engage in a performance feedback session trying to correct for the tag (if negative), or encourage for the tag (if positive), since it isn’t, by definition, based on job performance.

In my next post, I’ll describe what a manager can do in response to the mess that the “big boss” makes when applying a tag on a manager’s employee.

For you aspiring management designers out there, what is done to make sure that performance management is handled at the manager/employee level, rather than at multiple levels of the organization?  What is done to make sure the “big boss” has a holistic view of different of the greater team’s performance, rather than snapshot gleaned from individual meetings?

Related articles:

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

The Performance Management Process: Were You Aware of It?

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

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

Three reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information doesn’t work

Bonus! Six more reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information is risky

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

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 .


4 Responses to “What to do when your boss gives feedback on your employee? That’s a tough one, so let’s try to unwind this mess.”
  1. Pat says:

    My, my, the ‘big boss’ can put the manager ‘between the rock and the hard place’. Eager to see how he squeezes out!


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