What is Upward Feedback? Lessons from Google Manager Surveys
What is Upward Feedback?
Upward feedback is a performance appraisal method that allows direct reports to provide feedback to their manager.
This approach is on an upward trend and increasingly adopted by some of the world's leading brands.
How do we know? Because Google's doing it.
Google releases a 15-question/statement, mostly quantitative survey asking employees to rate their bosses.
They base their questions on the eight factors they’ve seen consistently in their mostly highly effective managers — things like being a good coach, taking a personal interest, and being a good communicator and listener.
That might sound fitting for a company whose slogan is "Don't be evil", but does it make sense for everyone?
Here’s What Works About Google’s Employee Survey
Google's upward feedback survey tackles a big business problem: Bad managers.
Bad managers have become such an office staple that they’re basically the face of corporate malaise in pop culture. (Well them, and the office printer.)
The only thing worse than working under a bad manager, is working under a bad manager who has absolutely no clue how bad they are, let alone how to get better.
It just makes sense that business all-stars like Google would want to keep a finger on the pulse of what's happening on a managerial level.
But there are some important things to consider before launching your own upward feedback initiative.
Use Specific Feedback Ratings for Better Manager Performance Insights
Google’s survey is a good example of how to ask about a manager’s soft skills as well as their specific, company-aligned strengths. Google gives 13 quantitative, strongly disagree to strongly agree statements that cover their eight goals.
For example, statements like, “My manager gives me actionable feedback on a regular basis” can effectively indicate how communicative a manager might be. Statements like “My manager assigns stretch opportunities to help me develop in my career” get at the more Google-specific desire to have managers present fun challenges and growth (stretch) opportunities for employees.
Use Open-Ended Questions to Get Broader Insights From Upward Surveys
Then, Google uses two open-ended questions:
1. “What would you recommend your manager keep doing?”
2. "What would you have your manager change?"
These open-ended questions give the employee a chance for qualitative responses. It's interesting to note that Google’s questions are open, but also also slightly specific, similar to the types of feedback questions recommended by the Harvard Business Review.
In short, Google does a lot of things right with their upward feedback survey, but Google’s model isn’t the only one.
For some offices, it might not be comprehensive enough, or it might be too specific to Google’s values. The Society for Human Resource Management offers an example survey of their own that fits a bit more generally. They ask more questions and break their questions down into groupings that get at different managerial qualities, such as “valuing diversity.” These questions might be easier to align to your own business culture.
Sometimes It Doesn’t Make Sense to Quantitatively Measure Your Managers
An employee survey like Google's could be a great way to get a real read on your managers. That said, surveys and quantitative data have problems of their own.
First, managers have an obvious power over employees and employees quite reasonably, fear that. In fact, Amy Gallo, editor at Harvard Business Review, recommends employees not give feedback to managers who can’t handle it. As much as we may want the feedback, it's unfair to ask an employee to risk their job in order to give it to us. While many workplaces surveys are anonymous, the “Ask a Manager” advice column over at Inc.com notes that the anonymity often feels, or is, see-through and doesn’t actually protect employees.
Second, not all data is good data — and having no data might be better than collecting bad data. Sir Andrew Likierman, Dean of the London Business School, wrote that it’s easy to fall into traps of over-trusting numbers, number-based systems, and metrics. Andrew points to the tendency for businesses to overvalue data that doesn’t actually say much, using popular but inapplicable scores and systems, and applying quantitative values to things that don’t have them.
Sometimes the best approach could be qualitative instead of quantitative. That could mean a brief qualitative survey, stopping in to sit with your teams for a while, or sitting down with employees for a private face-to-face meeting. There are many ways to train and develop strong managers. Just because the data isn’t there, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be.