What to do when your boss asks for open and honest feedback

While well-intentioned, providing upward feedback to a boss can tread into social and political hot water if you're not prepared.

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As if getting through the challenges of each day weren't enough, an email pops into your inbox from your boss with a cryptic subject like "360 Evaluation" or "Upward Feedback Requested." A cheerily-worded form letter inside explains that your boss is very interested in her performance, and as such, is asking direct reports for feedback on her performance. There might be a disclaimer or two that it's all anonymous (despite the link that seems to have a unique identifier attached) or won't be used against you. You do the quick mental math: This person that has the power to end my employment —how "open and honest" should I really be?

Does she really want "open and honest" feedback?

Many organizations are formally or informally beginning to incorporate upward feedback into their evaluation processes. Basically, upward feedback is flipping traditional evaluations, where the manager evaluates his or her reports, to the reverse, by asking employees to evaluate their manager.

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On the surface, it's a simple and sensible process. If we ask people to manage others, a great way to gauge their effectiveness is asking those who are most directly exposed to those management efforts for an evaluation. While well-intentioned, the process treads into social and political hot water. It doesn't take an HR expert to see that it is fairly easy to offend a boss when called ineffective by a subordinate and consciously or subconsciously seek retribution.

Good managers, however, actively seek feedback, and if your manager falls into this category a mysterious email should not be the first time he or she has asked for feedback on their management abilities. At many companies, upward feedback is voluntary, and therefore a request for your input is a genuine solicitation for feedback into how your manager can improve.

If you're concerned about what will happen if you provide honest feedback, both positive and negative, test your manager with something relatively benign. Ask him or her to make a minor change in anything from how and when they communicate with you to a small tweak in your schedule or duties. If they make an honest effort to accommodate the change, they're likely to be receptive to feedback.

What feedback should you give?

Focus your feedback on areas that are within your manager's control. He or she can communicate more or less often, better shield you from organizational politics, or structure meetings and schedules differently. They likely can't change the company's bonus or compensation policies, replace the CEO, or change the company strategy (or if they can, an upward feedback form is probably not the best forum for those discussions).

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Think through how your manager communicates and interacts with you, and assigns and reviews your work, and consider feedback along these dimensions:

Communication: Would you like your manager to communicate more or less with you? Do you feel like he or she is an "absentee landlord" that rarely has a moment to chat, or are they a "helicopter manager" that's constantly over your shoulder, barely providing a moment to get work done? Your manager's job is to adapt his or her communication style to their employees, but they can't do so without some guidance.

Workload and project management: Do you like to tackle a big project and figure out all the tiny pieces that need to get done, or would you rather have tasks parceled out and let someone else worry about the big picture? Communicate this guidance to your manager.

Working style: Do you prefer frequent check-ins, or do you prefer to reach out when you need help?

Company news and politics: Does it feel like you're always in the dark about what's happening in the organization or could you care less about the latest leadership changes and acquisitions?

Feedback: Perhaps most important, how do you like to receive feedback? Would you like constant guidance and reviews of your work, or do you need space to be productive, and only need feedback when the job is complete?

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Consider your ideal manager and find two or three key changes that your current manager could make to help you be a more effective employee. Structure your feedback so that it's concrete and actionable for your manager and directly related to helping you be more productive. Feedback like "You're a terrible communicator" is far less helpful to your manager than "It would be helpful if you could share key organizational news once or twice a month so I am aware of what's happening in the broader organization rather than speculating."

While it might not always seem it, managers are people too, and they need constructive feedback that helps them develop their talents just as much as anyone else. As an employee, you're the direct consumer of your manager's abilities, and therefore not only qualified to provide constructive feedback but in the position to benefit most when the manager adopts your feedback. Taking the time to provide upward feedback just might make your manager more bearable, or turn a good working relationship into a great one.

See also

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Image: Thiet Vu, Getty Images/iStockphoto