Upward feedback, a.k.a. asking employees to review managers, can help you create the kind of feedback-rich culture that makes big things happen for your business. And not only that, it can also help squash some of the nasty, business-killing side effects that come as a result of bad bosses.
How to structure your upward performance review
Regardless of whether you're evaluating employees or managers, most performance appraisals will include a healthy mix of ratings and open-ended questions to keep the feedback clear, specific and relevant.
Most upward appraisal forms will include anywhere from 3 to 20+ ratings-based statements and another 2 to 5 open-ended questions to collect feedback verbatim.
Let's tackle the ratings section first.
Part 1: How to rate leadership competencies in upward reviews
The first thing to know about ratings is there's a right and wrong way to use them in performance reviews. Upward reviews are no different.
If you want to use ratings fairly and effectively, start with a system that's simple, clear and based on behaviors — not vague metrics or subjective personality traits. First, choose the manager competency or characteristic you want to evaluate, then construct your rating statement.
Ratings for measuring a manager's ability to coach and lead
According to leadership consulting firm The Ken Blanchard Companies, the average organization loses up to $1 million dollars per year in missed opportunities due to sub-optimal leadership.
With the right questions/ratings statements, your upward appraisal can help identify opportunities to coach the coaches within your organization and make sure everyone from top to bottom is getting the support they need to do their best work.
My manager gives me actionable feedback on a regular basis
My manager's feedback is clear, direct and empathetic
My manager always follows feedback with a suggestion for how to improve
My manager assigns stretch opportunities to help me develop in my career
My manager's feedback is objective and backed up by clear examples
My manager listens to feedback and takes action on it
Ratings for measuring a manager's commitment to a specific business value
Most performance headaches usually boil down to a misalignment between manager expectations and employee behavior. But if a manager isn't exemplifying the company's core values, you can bet your employees won't either.
An upward performance appraisal is a great way to go deeper on a specific competency that aligns with one of your key business values. For example, if a culture of transparency and open communication is central to the way you run your business, you may want to create specific ratings statements geared specifically toward that.
My manager is always ready to hear me out
My manager is a good listener
My manager cares about my feedback
My manager takes action on my feedback
Google’s upward feedback survey is a stellar example of how to ask about a manager’s leadership skills in addition to their company-aligned strengths that support the overarching cultural values. Google gives 13 quantitative, strongly disagree to strongly agree statements that cover eight behavioral goals for managers:
- Be a good coach
- Empower your team and don't micro-manage
- Express interest in employees' success and well-being
- Be productive and results-oriented
- Be a good communicator and listen to your team
- Help your employees with career development
- Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
- Have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team
If you take some time to lay out the core behavioral values that make up a great leader at your org, your rating statements will essentially write themselves.
Ratings for measuring a manager's progress on a short-term goal or initiative
Finally, ratings are also a great way to track short-term improvement.
For example, if you want to get a read on the progress of a particular change management initiative, let's say an internal campaign to support greater diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace, you could include statements like the following.
My manager clearly explains how change will impact the team
My manager is transparent about the role of bias in the workplace
My manager seeks feedback from diverse groups of people
My manager keeps the work environment inclusive by respecting the team's scheduling needs
Part 2: How to collect upward feedback using open-ended questions
As with ratings, open-ended questions can be used to support any number of goals, values or change initiatives within your company.
Using the above example of measuring a manager's progress toward a D&I goal, you could ask open-ended questions like:
- What specific steps does your manager take to ensure that everyone on the team is heard?
- How comfortable do you feel voicing your ideas to your manager?
- What are some possible ways your manager could help you achieve greater work/life balance?
The open-ended section of your upward appraisal could also take the form of statements as opposed to questions, for example:
- Tell me about a time your manager personified one of your company values.
- Describe one way your manager exemplifies the company culture.
Now, the way you'll phrase your statements and questions will depend on who's asking.
And it's important to know that there's some debate on the validity of making upward feedback anonymous. Proponents of the anonymous upward review say it encourages honest feedback and protects employees from retaliation from bad bosses. Critics argue that anonymous appraisals are rarely truly anonymous and thus can lead to a toxic working environment.
But if you're here, we're guessing a feedback-rich working environment is high on your list right now. If that's the case, creating at least one part of your system that's completely dedicated to encouraging direct feedback between managers and employees is an important step.
Here are some questions managers can use to solicit feedback directly from employees.
- What concerns do you have when it comes to giving me feedback? What can I do to alleviate those concerns?
- What's your favorite way to receive feedback and recognition for your work?
- What are three things could I do to make your work easier and more fun?
- What's most helpful thing I do to help you complete your work?
- What's the least helpful thing I do?
A few things to keep in mind
Unfortunately, nothing in the sticky world of talent management is ever as simple as copy/paste. If you're new to the idea of upward feedback, there are some potential roadblocks to look out for.
- Know your goal - No two upward review forms should be the same. At Google, the upward review is there to gauge the manager's ability to communicate as part of its wider goal to support the goal of creating a feedback-driven culture. The review has no connection whatsoever to performance or compensation decisions.
- Rating the wrong things - Ask employees if the leadership competencies you laid out really make sense for the type of work they do in each department. Measuring managerial-level product engineers on their ability to be a team player may or may not be necessary at your company. Only rate what's necessary.
- Anonymous or attributed - In many organizations, employees are afraid to let their manager know what they really think, resulting in skewed feedback and bad data. If you think this might be the case in your company, you may want to consider using an anonymous review for at least some parts of your upward performance management system.
- Get your managers ready - Whether it's your leaders or your employees, every human being in your organization has a right to know why and how they'll be judged. Take time to explain the benefits of the upward review — securing that buy-in will pay back tenfold down the road.