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How to Provide Performance Feedback to Managers

If managers don’t know how well (or poorly) they’re performing as managers, and how their approach impacts their team, they can’t build on what’s good or improve on what isn’t working. Let’s go over how to gather and communicate feedback to managers effectively.

According to a recent Gallup poll, most managers receive little feedback from their direct reports and peers on how effectively they’re managing. If managers don’t know how well (or poorly) they’re performing as managers, and how their approach impacts their team, they can’t build on what’s good or improve on what isn’t working. Bad management puts organizations at risk. It can result in costly inefficiencies and is often to blame for employees feeling pressure to look busy or, conversely, overworking. On the flip side, great managers elevate their teams, inspiring and empowering good workers to be even better. Great managers know that excellence is a moving target—there’s always room to improve, more to learn, and skills to develop. Let’s go over how to gather and communicate feedback to managers effectively.

Determine What Feedback Would Be Most Valuable to Your Managers

Before you begin soliciting feedback, determine what information would be most useful so you can prioritize what you ask. Consider soliciting information that would both help validate what managers are doing well and provide them with ideas for improvement. In general, the more specific your questions, the better. The following topics should get you started:

  • Clarity of performance expectations—How well do the manager’s direct reports understand what’s expected of them? Do they know what success looks like?

  • Quantity and quality of the manager’s feedback to direct reports—Are direct reports getting adequate feedback about their performance?

  • Engagement—Are the manager’s direct reports engaged in their work? Do they care about the success of the team?

  • Belonging—Do direct reports feel like they have an important role on the team and place within the company?

  • Motivation—Do the manager’s direct reports feel inspired to do their best work and continuously improve?

  • Resources—Do direct reports have the resources they need to do their jobs? If not, what could their manager do to help?

  • Self-sufficiency—Is the manager able to delegate tasks and trust direct reports to do their work with an appropriate level of supervision?

  • Professional development—Do direct reports have opportunities to increase their knowledge and build new skills? Are they challenged in ways conducive to their satisfaction and growth?

  • Psychological safety—Do direct reports have the freedom to voice questions, concerns, and suggestions without fear of retaliation?

  • Advocacy—Do employees feel their manager cares about them and their success? Do they believe their manager has their back? Do they trust their manager?

  • Cohesion—Does the manager’s team work well together? Are they able to collaborate effectively among themselves and with other teams?

  • Awareness—Does the manager know what their direct reports are working on and how that work contributes to the success of the organization?

  • Compliance—Does the manager understand and adhere to company policies? Do they take the appropriate steps to minimize risk (e.g., avoiding behavior that could be perceived as discriminatory)?

Positive responses to these questions will indicate that a manager is doing well in their role. Negative responses mean there are opportunities for improvement. Both are valuable if put to good use.

Solicit That Feedback

In rare cases, an employee may feel comfortable providing critical feedback directly to their boss, but it would be unfair to expect this, even in an environment that prides itself on candor and trust. To get reliable and valuable feedback, you’ll need a process that inspires curiosity, maintains confidentiality, and prevents retaliation. Here are a few ways to gather valuable feedback: 

  • Confidential surveys: A lot of employee surveys have built-in functionality that maintains anonymity—for instance, by only sharing written responses with managers if they have a large number of direct reports and would therefore be less likely to know which individual provided each comment. We recommend using confidential surveys like this to inquire about manager performance.

  • Skip-level meetings: To dig deeper into potential issues, you might consider skip-level meetings. These are meetings between an employee and their manager’s boss. They’re difficult to pull off on a frequent basis, but making them an annual occurrence can provide another avenue for feedback.

  • Exit interviews: An exit interview is a conversation with a departing employee about their time at the company and the reason for their departure. Sometimes, but not always, departing employees may be willing to speak more candidly than they might while still employed. If you conduct exit interviews, we recommend asking about management practices generally and how the employee felt about their manager specifically.

  • Peer input: To get perspective from a manager’s peers, it’s fine to reach out to them directly, but we also recommend encouraging managers who work together to ask for and offer feedback among themselves.

  • Manager self-reflection: In their day-to-day work, managers probably aren’t thinking much about what management practices they’ve implemented, how they execute those practices, or why they manage the way they do. All that takes time and focus. One-on-one meetings are a good place for those who manage managers to reflect on management skills and practices. The point isn’t to make managers justify what they’re doing, but to get their thoughts on what’s going well and what could be improved. This input is just as important as feedback from their direct reports and peers.

Communicate That Feedback

If the feedback you collect would benefit managers in your organization more generally, it may be worth sharing and discussing during management team meetings or incorporated into management training. If the feedback pertains to the practices, techniques, or behavior of an individual manager, specific feedback may be better communicated with that manager directly, provided you can maintain confidentiality.

While it’s perfectly fair to hold managers to high performance standards and expect them to be generally receptive to feedback, don’t rush to judgment. Individual comments don’t tell the whole story and may not always be accurate. When gathering, analyzing, and sharing feedback, keep an open mind and remember that the goal here is to give managers information they can use to help them do their best work and continuously improve.

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