Most people think of feedback in terms of a performance review given to employees by their managers. But upward feedback—feedback for team leaders—is important too. Everyone, regardless of their rung on the corporate ladder, needs to know what’s working, what isn’t, and how they can improve.Giving feedback to someone in a leadership position above you requires a delicate balance between saying what you want to say and respecting the boss’s position. It can be scary, but when mastered, this skill can promote a more positive work environment for the individuals involved and the team as a whole.
Why feedback for team leaders is so important
Leadership itself is a skill that takes training and practice, and just because someone has achieved a high position in an organization, their learning hasn’t come to an end. It makes sense that even those in management positions need to know if they’re mastering the skill and how they can improve. But the higher the position and the more decision-making power a person gets, the harder it is for them to get honest feedback.
Leaders sometimes need the fresh insight and viewpoint that only those who work for them can give. Direct reports can offer managers feedback based on their own unique perspectives. Topics might include:
- ideas for improving workflow
- the need for more support
- their own professional development
- requesting more communication or clarity
- potential challenges—things like micromanaging, miscommunications, or morale problems that the manager might not be aware of
Some of these topics will be uncomfortable to bring up, but if they are affecting the ability to do one’s job, or harming job satisfaction, it’s important to do so.
What holds employees back from giving leadership feedback
Even in the most egalitarian workplace, there is some type of organizational chart mapping out who is “over” and “under” whom. This can make it hard for employees to feel comfortable giving feedback to those to whom they report. The reasons for reluctance are often one (or more) of the following:
- Fear of retaliation: Speaking up could put their job or advancement at risk.
- Not wanting to be perceived as a complainer, a know-it-all, or not a team player.
- Feeling it is not their place (or their responsibility) to critique a supervisor or manager.
- Assuming that because the person is the boss, they have no choice but to live with the status quo.
- Assuming that upper management knows about and approves of a direct supervisor’s way of doing things.
While these fears are understandable, most managers welcome input about how they are doing. The trick is to understand when feedback for team leaders will benefit the organization as a whole, and how to deliver it in a proper way.
Giving upward feedback that will be heard
When it comes to feedback, people are usually less upset about what is said, than about how it’s said—and what they think it implies. If they feel scolded, belittled, or insulted, they are not going to respond well. When giving feedback to anyone, remember that the goal is to improve working conditions. The following tips will help deliver the message effectively:
- If there is a structure for providing feedback, stick to it. For example, in many organizations, a performance review may also include an opportunity to evaluate a supervisor’s performance. Going through unofficial channels to give unsolicited advice might not be welcome.
- Make sure the feedback serves the right purpose. There is a difference between a conversation that will help the leader do a better job and a gripe session. Make sure feedback is not about trivial one-time incidents or personal pet peeves. If the issue is not affecting your ability to do your job, or harming the department or the company, it might be best to let it go.
- Prepare in advance. Off-the-cuff feedback might not come out right. Take some time to think about what needs to be said and how best to express it.
- Ask permission. Broach the subject with a question like “I have an idea about how we might improve things in the department. Could we discuss it?” or “Would you be open to some honest feedback about how the project is going?” or “I noticed how people reacted in the meeting. I’d be happy to give you some feedback if you’d find it useful.”
- Choose an appropriate time and place. When possible, face-to-face meetings are best. Make an appointment if necessary to make sure there is ample time for a discussion. If the topic is sensitive, avoid meetings or when others are around, unless it’s meant to be a team feedback session.
- Keep the discussion to your own experiences and verifiable data. Be direct but professional. Stick to knowable facts and steer clear of hearsay or rumors. Voice only your own observations and don’t give advice of “if I were you…”
- Understand what is in the leader’s control (and what isn’t). A management team is often privy to a lot of information that they are not at liberty to share. Your feedback and suggestions might be impossible to act on due to budget constraints, personnel matters, or other behind-the-scenes matters. And some things might not be up to them at all. For example, giving feedback about the unfairness of the PTO policy is not helpful if they have no authority to change it.
- Remember leaders are human too. Everyone has feelings, makes mistakes, and deserves a chance to improve—even leaders! Be clear but kind when giving feedback. Imagine how you would feel on the receiving end and let that be your guide.
Feedback works best when it goes both ways. When telling a leader how you think they can improve, ask what you can do to help. Keep an open mind and be willing to listen and learn. Honest information, provided without judgment, can improve working relationships and strengthen the cohesiveness of the team.
Feedback benefits both you and leadership
In successful organizations, feedback is an important tool for optimizing teamwork and collaboration. It’s useful for clarifying expectations, building trust and healthy working relationships, rewarding performance, and when necessary, course-correcting through constructive criticism.
It is easiest for feedback to go both ways in an environment that promotes psychological safety. Not only will employees be free to speak their minds when there is a relationship of mutual trust and respect, they will also benefit from the experience themselves. Following are some reasons why providing a framework for upward feedback is beneficial to everyone:
- Managers are not always aware of things that are affecting the entire team. The feedback that points out these undercurrents give them valuable insights and the opportunity to change.
- An employee who is willing to give feedback and able to do it in an effective way stands out as someone with leadership potential. They are also demonstrating that they care about the organization.
- Asking for feedback from direct reports not only provides an opportunity to find ways to improve but also to hear what is going right.
- Upward feedback gives management a chance to proactively work on issues like burnout, bad morale, and miscommunication.
- Supervisors who appreciate and welcome feedback will strengthen their relationships with their team and become better leaders.
Want to know more about giving leadership feedback? Blue Ocean Brain’s professional development training will help you and your organization build a culture of learning, engagement, and inclusion.