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 supervisor?
If you would’ve asked someone what to do just ten years ago, they would’ve likely told you to sit tight and hold back. The mere idea of providing suggestions or constructive criticism to someone higher than you on the org chart wasn’t just uncommon — it was taboo.
But today manager feedback, also known as upward feedback, has been growing in popularity, and for good reason.
Manager feedback seriously matters
The core benefit of feedback is obvious: it helps people build awareness and improve themselves, especially at work.
“Just as individual contributors need feedback, so do managers,” says Jamie McCollough, Head of Performance Development at Atlassian. “They too 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. And for managers, that includes feedback from their team members.”
One study of 252 managers over the course of five years found that manager feedback was more than just lip service — it really did help managers improve their skills. Managers who were originally rated as poor to moderate showed “significant improvements” over the five year period.
Beyond creating a culture of trust and openness that allows everyone to reflect and improve, upward feedback is also directly correlated with high-performing organizations.
According to Atlassian’s own research, in high-achieving teams, 57% of respondents said that they are 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.
Plus, 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.
Upward feedback helps managers better understand and address the needs of their direct reports. And more importantly, when it’s acted on, managers demonstrate that the perspective of their employees is valued which builds trust, a key ingredient to employee engagement and empowerment.
Good managers crave feedback
The perks of upward feedback are undeniable, which explains why this practice is starting to become commonplace amongst employers.
“The traditional HR [feedback] practices of once or twice a year, often tied to a formal performance review, don’t provide the real-time feedback employees need to make adjustments and improve their performance throughout the year,” explains McCollough. “There’s a general shift toward more regular, continuous, and informal feedback. And that shift means the manager role is changing as well.”
While the entire approach to feedback appears to be shifting, that doesn’t change the fact that 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.
However, here’s an encouraging sentiment: 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.”
Additionally, managers find this feedback useful, as it gives them insight into other aspects of the team that they might have otherwise missed.
“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.”
4 tips for offering effective manager feedback
So, your manager wants to hear from you. Is that your golden ticket to knock on their office door and blurt out all of the suggestions and criticisms that have been rattling around in your brain?
Not exactly. Much like offering feedback to anybody, you need to use some tact to get your point across in a way that’s clear and actionable.
1. Remember to discuss impact
When offering feedback, it can be tough to know where to start. That’s why McCollough recommends the SBI Model to all Atlassian employees. That stands for:
This gives people a structure to follow to ensure they’re hitting on all of the important parts of their piece of feedback — while also staying focused on facts, as opposed to emotions or opinions about what happened.
Here’s a simple example of how you could offer 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.”
2. Come prepared with a solution
Imagine that somebody on your team brought you a piece of feedback, and all they said was, “I really don’t like the way you format our meeting agendas, because they’re confusing.”
That covered the necessary bases, but you likely still have a lot of questions. Mainly, how would they prefer that you format the agendas instead? That feedback wasn’t particularly constructive, because you don’t know where to go from here.
Keep in mind that when offering manager feedback you need to bring solutions to the table, and not just criticisms.
“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.
Remember that your goal of offering upward feedback is to improve the situation, which means you can’t just poke holes. Come prepared with one (or even a few!) suggestions that you can discuss with your manager.
That’ll also help squelch some of your own nerves, as you can approach this as a collaborative conversation — rather than an accusation.
3. Dish out some positive feedback too
The word “feedback” alone has a negative connotation. But remember that this isn’t 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.”
4. Be patient
Managers need to do more than just be receptive to feedback — they need to take the extra step to actually put that feedback into action.
But, like all change, it won’t happen overnight. It can take some time to begin to see some shifts in the way you all work together.
“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.”
Take a deep breath and help your manager succeed
Here’s the thing: offering feedback to your own manager is probably always going to be a little anxiety-inducing. 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 entire company.
So, take a deep breath, put these tips into action, and strategically offer your manager some of those insights you would’ve otherwise silenced. Trust us — you’ll all be better off for it.