5 Reasons Upward Feedback Sucks — And How to Fix It

November 9, 2020 | Rachael Bosch

Organizations spend a considerable amount of time and lose up to $35 million each year trying to get feedback on their leaders’ performance and management behaviors. For some, this is part of identifying management issues, minimizing turnover rates, or correcting lackluster productivity. For others, it is a proactive effort to deliver feedback for professional development at all levels. Recently, we have also been hearing from organizations that want to gather more candid feedback from all employees to increase transparency and minimize their leadership bias. 

The problem is that both organizations and individuals are going about collecting feedback data in all the wrong ways. Collecting imperfect feedback allows people to make imperfect decisions on bad information, and nothing in the organization changes. The result is missed opportunities for helping remedial and high performers alike achieve more significant professional growth.

Whether you are an individual hoping to become more self-aware, a leader looking to create a culture of feedback, or an HR executive kicking off upward reviews for the first time, let’s look at how you can put yourself on a path to successful feedback acquisition! Here are some common pitfalls in the feedback collection process and how they are easily corrected.

Anonymity is in doubt.
Getting honest feedback for the top rungs of your organizational ladder almost always requires protecting the identity of the people giving it. This anonymity is especially necessary when there are festering cultural issues that leadership is having a hard time tracking down. While it may feel counterintuitive, the employees with the most negative feedback are the ones you want to hear from the most. If these folks fear a backlash in any way, they will hold back or decline to participate altogether. Regardless of how you are gathering feedback, set the boundaries and expectations upfront. Talk to your employees about the difference between confidentiality and anonymity and the limits of both when it comes to ethical or legal concerns within their feedback.

They’re not truly objective.
While similar to anonymity, objectivity is more about making apples-to-apples comparisons in the feedback you get. You want to be careful to define any performance criteria or frame any assessment questions so that people can put aside personal biases to answer them helpfully. That way, you don’t write off a long-winded rant as a “disgruntled employee” when there might be some truths beneath the anger that are worth investigating. Sound objectivity in the planning process also ensures that you have sufficient context for interpreting findings later on — so one person’s performance is viewed accurately within the context of their peer group.

Inconsistencies abound.
Speaking of hidden insights, if your data collection process is inconsistent or unthoughtful, it will inevitably mess up your findings. You want to ask questions that cover less-obvious topics — a leader’s self-awareness and ability to communicate through conflict, for example — and you want to ask the same questions the same way to everyone. In addition, you only want to investigate topics that you’re prepared to take action on afterward. Otherwise, the message you’re sending to respondents is that you heard their grievances and simply don’t give a damn.

The analysis is sloppy.
All too often, the review process ends with a small group of people in the organization combing through responses and trying to make sense of them all (usually on top of their other work). Two things are problematic about this approach. The first is that respondents anticipate that this will happen, so they don’t trust the process and give less-than-honest feedback for fear of retribution — see the first bullet point above. The second is that a single person or function inherently lacks the breadth of perspectives needed to understand the data’s implications. The best processes review the data from various angles, including employee engagement and recruitment, business operations, ethics, inclusivity, and legality. This function rarely exists inside an organization with enough distance from the respondents to create validity in the final results.

Delivery is inadequate or non-existent.
Once the whole process has concluded, it’s crucial to handle the findings appropriately. You want to let respondents know they’ve been heard but also what exactly you plan to do to improve or sustain a positive workplace culture — and then do it. You also want to ensure the delivery of the feedback in a useful and usable way. Just sending a report to people without instruction on what it means or what they should do with it is not only unhelpful, it can reinforce many of the trust issues most organizations are trying to avoid in the first place.

The most successful feedback efforts we’ve seen — sparking and sustaining real culture change — involve thoughtful and methodical planning and implementation. At Fringe PD, we are committed to using what we know about the psychology of effective communication and leadership to support organizations in this journey. To learn more about our approach and the tools we use, visit Fringe PD Assessments, or set up a time to chat!