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5-second summary
  • Though it used to be frowned upon, manager feedback (or “upward feedback”) is the status quo for high-performing teams.
  • Good managers actually crave feedback, as long as it’s constructive and solutions-oriented.
  • Use these five tips to determine the best way to get your message across, whether your manager feedback is positive or negative.

Think of a time you had a piece of feedback you wanted to tell your manager. What did you do? Do you bite your tongue and wait until they ask you about it? Did you worry it wasn’t your place to critique your boss?

If you would’ve asked someone what to do just ten years ago, they might’ve told you to hold back and sit tight. Providing suggestions or constructive criticism to someone at the management level wasn’t as widely accepted.

But times have changed, and now manager feedback, also known as upward feedback, is the status quo for high-performing teams.

Manager feedback seriously matters

6 tips to make the most of your performance review

Feedback helps people build awareness and improve their performance, and guess what? Your boss is indeed a person.

“Just as individual contributors need feedback, so do managers,” says Jamie McCollough, Head of Performance Development at Atlassian. “They need to know how they’re doing. Even if you’re someone with great awareness about your strengths and opportunities, having the perspective of others that you most impact is key to your growth and development.”

Manager feedback works. One study of 252 managers over the course of five years found that managers who received regular feedback improved their skills. Even those who were originally rated poorly showed “significant improvements” over the five-year period. 

Upward feedback is also directly correlated with high-performing organizations. 

In our research, we found that among high-achieving teams, 57% of respondents feel welcome to give feedback to their managers. In contrast, 85% of people on low-achieving teams are not welcomed or encouraged to give feedback to anybody higher on the org chart. 

Manager feedback plays a huge role in employee retention. You’ve heard the cliché that people don’t leave their jobs – they leave their bosses. Gallup research shows that up to 75% of the reasons for voluntary turnover can be influenced by managers. 

Good managers crave constructive feedback

An illustration of a conversation between 2 people

While the entire approach to feedback appears to be shifting, it can still be nerve-racking for employees to voice their opinions in the office. In fact, one study found that only 1% of employees feel “extremely confident” voicing their concerns at crucial moments. When it comes to issuing a suggestion directly to their bosses, it makes sense that they’d rather keep their lips zipped.

But here’s an encouraging sentiment: good managers don’t just tolerate feedback – they want to hear it. 

Good managers don’t just tolerate feedback, they want to hear it. 

“I see it as a way to improve or tailor what I’m focusing on,” shares Jenifer Vandagriff, Senior Design Manager at Atlassian. “It’s critical to me. I wouldn’t know what to focus on or where our problems lie if I didn’t get that feedback from my team.” 

“I find it valuable, because I can’t be everywhere at once,” adds Greg Laderman, Head of Enterprise Growth at Atlassian. “I’m in San Francisco and have a globally-distributed team across a variety of roles. There are a lot of things they do that I don’t get day-to-day visibility into.” 

5 tips for offering effective manager feedback

How to give honest feedback that builds your work relationships

So, good news: your manager wants to hear from you. But what’s the best way to get your message across? 

1. Find the right time and place

Pulling your manager aside for a long chat right before they go into a big presentation or on a day they are jam-packed with meetings won’t be the best way to get their full attention. It’s all about knowing your audience. What does their meeting schedule look like? Are there any huge projects kicking off today they need to bring their A-game for? How is your manager doing personally?

Assuring that you can find a time when your manager is in a good headspace will mean that the conversation will be better for both of you.

2. Use a feedback framework that works for you

When offering feedback, it can be tough to know where to start. That’s why McCollough recommends the SBI Model to all Atlassians. SBI stands for:

  • Situation
  • Behavior
  • Impact

It’ll give you a structure to follow to ensure you’re staying focused on facts and your experience, as opposed to making it personal.

Here’s a simple example of how you could offer constructive feedback to your boss, after a team meeting in which they shared an abrupt change with you:

  • Situation: In this afternoon’s team meeting…
  • Behavior: You announced we would be delaying our launch date to prioritize a different project without having given me a heads up.
  • Impact: As the project lead, I received a ton of questions from the team after the meeting who were all disappointed by the news, and I wasn’t prepared to answer them.

McCollough shares that the impact piece of the puzzle is important, but often missed. “It’s the ‘So what?’” she says. “By sharing the impact of the behavior, it gets to the root concern. And that will hopefully help the manager to connect to why the employee is sharing the feedback in the first place.” 

3. Think through solutions, too

Imagine somebody on your team came to you and said, “I really don’t like the way you format our meeting agendas. They’re confusing.”

You’d probably feel a bit blindsided by that, and it might even make you feel defensive. Then, you’ll have questions. How should you format the meetings? Their negative feedback wasn’t constructive, because you don’t know what to do with it.

“It’s easy for anyone to sit back in their chair and start lobbing a bunch of darts. It’s the people that bring solutions to the table who are the ones that actually impact change,” says Laderman.

Solutions-oriented feedback helps your manager feel like you’re invested in the team’s overall success, and makes you feel like you’re working together toward a common goal.

4. Don’t forget to give praise…’cause managers rarely get it

The word “feedback” alone has earned itself a negative connotation. But remember it’s not all about highlighting shortcomings. You can (and should!) offer praise and recognition to your manager as well.

Positive feedback is so important in the workplace today. 79% of employees who quit their jobs cited “lack of appreciation” as a key reason for their departure, and managers are not excluded from that group.

“Balance the positive and constructive. I think where it creates awkwardness is if someone’s overly critical,” shares Vandagriff. “When I do ask for feedback and people are giving me kudos, that will motivate me in a lot of ways.” 

5. Give your manager the space to respond and change

Now that you’ve gotten it off your chest, and talked through potential solutions, be sure to give your manager the time and space to actually put your feedback into action. 

You’ll need to trust that your manager has taken your feedback to heart, and will respond in time with all the other things that are likely on their plate.

“It’s not easy implementing change quickly,” advises Laderman. “I can’t magically wave a wand and make all problems disappear, but I can promise I’ll listen and be empathetic and change what I can.” 

Help your manager succeed

Offering honest feedback to your own boss might be scary at first. It’s not an easy (or even totally natural) thing to do.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an important process for improving your working relationship, your team, and even your company culture.

So, take a deep breath, put these tips into action, and schedule a feedback session with your manager to share some of those insights you would’ve otherwise silenced. Trust us — you’ll all be better off for it. 

A non-threatening guide to giving your manager feedback