As an employee, you’re likely used to receiving feedback from your peers and manager. Feedback, when given appropriately, can be a tremendous stimulus for improving employee engagement and productivity, according to 71% of respondents in a survey done by ResumeLab.
While employee feedback is highly encouraged in management circles, upward feedback, on the other hand, is looked upon with trepidation by employees around the world. And for obvious reasons — not least of which is your boss becoming offended by your feedback and letting you go.
While giving upward feedback can be tricky, you can master it! In this post, we’ll walk you through how to do it thoughtfully and tactfully and give you six excellent feedback examples you can use at work.
What is upward feedback?
Upward feedback is when employees tell their supervisors, managers, or higher-level executives about what they’ve observed about their management, performance, or behavior as it relates to the team.
Upward feedback reverses the traditional manager-to-employee feedback flow. For as long as society has been working, this flow has been a mainstay and reversing it would've been taboo. But not anymore.
Working closely with someone tells you about their performance, and when you spend plenty of time working with your boss in various settings, you’ll gain insights that can be helpful to them.
It’s normal to be hesitant in providing feedback to managers, and only 12% of workers think their manager wants feedback. But when done correctly, upward feedback can not only help your boss become better but can improve your working relationship with them.
Advantages Upward Feedback
As with almost all management processes, upward feedback has advantages and drawbacks.
First, let’s consider its advantages.
1. It allows managers to gain useful insights.
Providing feedback to managers sheds light on issues that they’ll ordinarily be blind to. For example, a seemingly harmless piece of constructive criticism a manager gives might be a big deal for the recipient. With upward feedback, supervisors would be unaware of the damage their behavior is causing.
Failure to nip issues like this in the bud can lead to employee disgruntlement, disengagement, and turnover. Managers determine whether employees enjoy their employment, so they need all the help they can get in the form of upward feedback.
2. It identifies potential leaders.
An ability to give constructive feedback to managers indicates whether an employee is capable of suggesting improvements and is willing to commit to the right course of action.
When employees give tactful and valuable feedback, it also shows that they care about the organization's progress.
Drawbacks of Upward Feedback
1. It may not be received well by your manager.
Feedback is great — when it’s useful, given correctly, and the receiving party takes it in good faith. You can use all the right words, be mindful of your tone, and share it with them in their preferred method of communication, but it still may not be received well by your manager.
You can only control what you say and do. So, if you feel your feedback is helpful, share it tactfully and let the chips fall where they may.
2. You may not have enough information to form feedback that results in change.
Your manager may do things a certain way due to company policies, personal matters among your teammates, or even because of the laws in your industry.
That doesn't mean you can't share your feedback with them, you absolutely should. But take a moment to remember that you may not have enough information about your boss's actions that you're giving feedback on. However, by giving upward feedback, you may learn a great deal about how and why things work the way they do at your job.
Let’s now see guiding principles to giving great feedback that’s likely to be well-received by a superior.
How to Give Upward Feedback
Giving upward feedback is easier said than done, but applying these five principles can help you improve your chances of providing feedback that’ll be appreciated.
1. Know your boss
Giving and receiving feedback depends on the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The same is true of upward feedback. Without an existing relationship, feedback might be impossible to give safely.
Therefore, before embarking on giving it, gauge the reaction your advice is likely to elicit. For example, if your boss is temperamental, close-minded, and generally unreceptive to new things, your feedback will likely be futile.
On the other hand, if you have an open-minded, friendly manager whom you’ve come to trust over time, your feedback will likely be received well.
No matter the type of feedback you plan to give, keep in mind that the goal of feedback isn’t to lash out or prove your expertise, but to help your boss become better.
2. Be wary of unsolicited feedback
In a perfect world, your supervisor would ask for your feedback, urging you to correct them when they stray off the right path.
However, in real life, this isn’t often the case. So what can you do in such situations? First, look for opportunities to bring up the topic of feedback!
Some of the best times to do this are when you’re starting a new project or working with a new client.
For example, you could approach your manager at the start of the project and say, “ Would you find it helpful if I gave you feedback at certain points during this new project?”
With a willingness to help evident in your question, you’re likely to be granted permission to give feedback when appropriate.
3. Speak from your viewpoint
Just because you’ve been given permission doesn’t mean you should act like you’d do a better job if you were the manager. Instead, focus on providing feedback on your perspective of events.
What does this mean?
For example, if your supervisor made an unsavory remark to a colleague at a meeting, you shouldn’t say, “ You’re such a bully.”
Instead, frame it as “During the meeting, I felt a condescending tone when you shared your expectations. I'm motivated to do my job better when I hear phrases like this…” Share examples of how you feel best supported and motivated so your manager can incorporate those practices into their management style.
By framing your feedback this way, they'll see themselves the way others do and feel empowered to do better.
4. Don't go to their manager.
If you're experiencing an opportunity to provide upward feedback, be sure not to go further up the chain than necessary. In other words, tell your manager directly rather than going a level above (or worse, laterally or below). Doing so can create more issues than you anticipated and show a lack of unity and trust on your team. You could also be seen as a gossip or complainer rather than a leader who is learning to "manage up".
If the feedback you're sharing is in response to an egregious situation that you don't trust your manager to resolve themselves, you may need to go a step further than giving feedback and loop in additional support from HR or legal.
5. Silence is sometimes golden.
If you’re unsure whether your manager wants to hear feedback or a particular criticism, it might be best to keep your silence. Unless their behavior puts you, the team, and/or the company at risk, there’s no upside to upsetting your working relationship with your manager.
Instead, look for other anonymous, impersonal ways of giving feedback, like employee surveys.
6 Upward Feedback Examples
Here are six upward feedback examples to inspire you.
1. Discussing Burnout
Burnout is a serious workplace problem, with 2 in 5 employees intending to change jobs because of it. Here’s what an employee at the risk of burnout might say as upward feedback:
“I’ve looked at my schedule for the month, and I don’t think I would be able to take on more work. Can we arrange a meeting to discuss my workload for optimal performance?”
Framing your feedback this way will alert an excellent manager to your workload and make them adjust it for optimal productivity.
2. Showing Appreciation
Feedback isn’t only about pointing out where managers can do better. It also involves praising them when they’ve done well.
Managers are just employees with more responsibilities. Thus, like all employees, they desire recognition and appreciation.
As an employee, you can say:
“I really appreciate how you keep looking out for the team. We were having a hard time getting approval for that project, and I can’t thank you enough for jumping in to save the day.”
3. Sharing Uncertainty
With so many moving parts, it’s easy for employees to lose focus on what to do. If you have lost direction on an assignment or project, you can use upward feedback to get yourself on track while helping your manager improve their management skills.
You can say:
“I feel I’ll do better with better clarification on the next steps on this project. Can you clarify what is required at this and other stages of the project?”
4. Asking For Recognition
Upward feedback can help if it’s observed that a supervisor only criticizes team members and never recognizes the good stuff they do.
An employee might say:
“I observed that many people drifted off during the presentation, even though it had many great points. I feel giving recognition for the good stuff the team has done recently can spruce things up and improve overall team engagement.”
5. Forming Relationships With A New Manager
Newly promoted managers might be very talented but have lack managerial experience or training. Employees that have more experience in this aspect can help them.
They could say:
“I know you’re handling a lot at the moment, and you’re doing a great job. I’d be happy to give you feedback if you’d find it helpful.”
Most new managers will be grateful for the help and relieved that someone has their back.
6. Sharing Grievances
Upward feedback can help a manager alleviate the concerns of some disgruntled employees.
For instance, you can say:
“I heard through the grapevine that X didn't like how you corrected it publicly, and many team members agree with him. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, but I think offering private criticism will go down better with my colleagues.”
Manage Up With Upward Feedback
Upward feedback might appear daunting, especially considering what might happen if not received well. However, the benefits make it worth the effort. We hope you use the principles and examples we’ve discussed to improve the quality of your feedback.