It Goes Both Ways: Implementing Feedback from Employee to Manager

by Daniel Hannig

Which way does feedback flow in your organization? Laterally, from peer-to-peer? Or do you take a more traditional top-down approach, with managers delivering performance reviews? When you assess the productivity, performance, and quality of the work your company produces, you may be overlooking one other direction–upward.

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Upward feedback turns the conventional approach to reviewing employees on its head. Instead of management evaluating employees, employees evaluate management. If you’re convinced that management at your company is doing just fine, heed this: a Harvard Business Review uncovered that 58 percent of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss. And 79% of workers cite a lack of appreciation as their reason for leaving a job.

Everyone feels like they have to bite their tongue sometimes in the presence of their superiors at work, but those resentments can build up over time. By soliciting upward feedback, you can address smaller issues as they come up, instead of getting blindsided by a resignation.

Implementing upward feedback is easier said than done. Asking employees to honestly assess their bosses is a tricky proposition. There are many complicated social dynamics at play, which means that your workplace needs to have a foundation of shared values in order for upward feedback to flourish. Accepting these common values among your employees means that the feedback that gets sent to management will be fair, accurate, and meaningful. Here, then, are the qualities you need to establish in your workplace to facilitate open feedback, and how you can get there.


First and foremost, your employees need to trust that their honest feedback will be appreciated. They need to believe that they won’t be punished for being critical, or lose out on opportunities because they raised their concerns. Employees also might worry that their feedback could be interpreted as weak or whining. If an employee is struggling with an unrealistic workload as a result of resource mismanagement, he might think it’s better to suffer in silence than risk appearing lazy to his manager. In this case, trust must be built throughout the organization so that employees can feel free to say something at all.

What you can do to build trust

Meet regularly with employees, one-on-one. You’ll start to get to know each other, not just as coworkers, but as people. Inevitably, you’ll find out what their interests are, what they did on the weekend, and what’s important to them. In turn, they won’t see you as their scary boss, but as someone they can talk to. Knowing more about your employees as individuals also informs management decisions–for instance, if you find out your employee has a sick relative, you could lighten their workload. Their outside-of-work talents could come in handy, too. If someone has a passion for photography, you could suggest that they take team headshots for the company website.


If most of the comments you receive are, “You’re the best. BOSS. Ever!”, I’m sorry to tell you that it might not be 100% honest. In any company, there are people who think that compliments will help them get ahead (and sometimes they do!). As nice as it might feel to receive positive feedback, it doesn’t help to address what could be improved within your organization.

You’re going to need your employees to be open and forthright with you. While some employees might not have an issue with voicing their criticism to management, some might be more timid. Your introverted employees deserve to be heard, too. As an organization, you’ll have to communicate to your employees that honesty is something that is appreciated and wanted.

What you can do to encourage honesty

Anonymous employee surveys are a great tool for drawing out honest feedback. If the people that work with you have a hard time sharing their criticism face-to-face, an anonymous survey gives them the security they need to tell it like it is. Another benefit of surveys is their ability to quantify murky emotions into manageable data. While tackling each employee’s source of dissatisfaction can seem insurmountable, a survey provides data points that you can group and prioritize. If your survey reveals that 86% of employees feel unappreciated, you could institute a peer recognition program.


Of course you respect your employees, and your employees respect you. It would be nearly impossible to get anything done otherwise. But respect within a workplace isn’t limited to how people treat each other; it encompasses how people react to differing opinions, too. Employees and managers have different schemas–that is, cognitive frameworks for how they organize and interpret information.

A manager’s schema is organized around broad, big picture problems and solutions. A manager might focus less on individual roadblocks, if those roadblocks aren’t significantly affecting the bottom line. But an employee’s schema is organized around how to accomplish a specialized task within a larger project. So, while their roadblock might not affect profitability writ large, it does make it harder to be productive the longer it continues.

It’s natural within a management schema to think employees should just “get it done”, and it’s natural within an employee schema to think that management is out-of-touch. What’s important is recognizing the biases inherent in both these schemas so that you can move beyond them.

How to foster respect

This goal is at once the easiest and the hardest to achieve. It’s easiest because it doesn’t take much effort to be kind, accepting, and listen. It’s hardest because there isn’t any one activity or program you can put in place to initiate respect. It can help to model it by taking an active interest in people and their projects, and to demonstrate gratitude for feedback when you receive it. Give your employees the permission to be their authentic selves at work–whether that’s asking about their hobbies, or just exchanging some banter by the coffee machine.

An Open Mind

Eventually, you are going to encounter feedback you disagree with. When that happens, your mind can quickly jump to questioning your critic’s motivations. Do they have an axe to grind? Did you make an honest, if frustrating, mistake right before the survey was sent out? It’s normal to wonder how someone could get such a different impression than what you intended. Still, feedback is only useful if it informs a positive change. People and processes can always improve, and a company’s ability to adapt is a real source of strength.

How to keep an open mind

Take a step back. Point of view is everything here, and when it comes to evaluating upward feedback, yours can be a minefield. One way to avoid the trap of your own reaction to your employees’ criticism is to revisit your reviews after enough time has passed that it’s a less emotional experience. You might be surprised how a comment you initially disagreed with, six months later, rings a little more true. It can also be encouraging to see how far you’ve come since you were evaluated. Lucky for you, reading this article is a great sign that you’re on a positive path already. Creating a feedback culture isn’t something one person can do alone–it involves a whole organization of active participants. If you’re here, you already recognize how important it is to get the buy-in of everyone in your company, and you’re curious about how to get it. Now that you’ve got the ball rolling, you’re on your way to establishing a more dependably open and inclusive corporate culture.


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