How to Get Meaningful Upward Feedback (without a 360)

It's hard to know how you're really doing as a manager.  "Success" is much less about what you personally produce and more about what you support and enable your employees to do, but it's not easy to measure that.  If your employees are doing really well, is that because of what you're doing, or in spite of it?  If they're not doing so well, is it because of you, or are they producing more than they otherwise could because you are helping to mitigate a really bad organizational context?  In large organizations, there are sometimes surveys and other tools that can provide some kind of upward feedback, even if it's indirect.  At a lot of organizations, though, you're left in the dark.  

If you work at one of those places, or maybe you don't want to wait until the annual survey comes around, here is a tool you can use to get meaningful upward feedback from your employees.  It's not new, and you've probably seen it before.  However, it is frequently used incorrectly and then dismissed as useless because managers don't realize why they're not getting anything meaningful from their employees.

Upward Feedback Tool: the Continue/Start/Stop model

The tool itself is incredibly simple, which is part of its greatness.   The more you use it, the more likely you are to get honest feedback, as long as you really listen and take the feedback seriously.  This could be part of your regular check-ins with each employee or something you do on a quarterly basis.  It is not recommended for team meetings, unless it's a conversation about what the team could do differently. 

  1. What is one thing I could continue doing that would help you in working toward the team goals?  [Note: you could substitute "your work" or "your objectives" here - the key is to use the same language every time, and keep it focused on work.]
  2. What is one thing I could start doing that would help you in working toward the team goals?
  3. What is one thing I could stop doing that would help you in working toward the team goals?

Tips for using the Continue/Start/Stop model effectively

  • It is inherently uncomfortable for most employees to give negative feedback to the person who decides their raises.  Your employees may be skeptical at first, and the first bits of feedback you get will probably not be that useful because they're testing the waters to see if you'll make them sorry for criticizing you.
  • How you respond is absolutely crucial.  If you feel overwhelmed and like you're doing the best you can right now, this probably isn't a good time to ask for feedback because you're not in a position to process it.  It's okay to wait.
  • DO NOT ASK FOR FEEDBACK IF YOU'RE NOT WILLING TO CONSIDER IT.  You don't have to implement everything your employees mention, but you must consider their feedback thoughtfully and with an open mind.  Your reaction, more than your response, is what will determine whether they give you real feedback rather than safe pablum.  Asking for feedback and then treating it dismissively is far worse than never asking for feedback at all.  Know yourself, and make sure you're in a good place before you implement this approach.
  • Make it clear that the purpose is to get feedback on what will help them to be more successful in meeting the team goals.  This is not about you as a human being, your personality, or anything else, except to the extent that it directly impacts the work. 
  • Keep it future-focused and behavior-oriented, and both you and the employees will feel more comfortable about the conversation.
  • You have to ask all three questions every time, and they have to give you one item in every category, every time.  Otherwise, they will cop out and only tell you positive things, which doesn't help you all that much.  The idea is that you want to make it no big deal for them to let you know what they need you to do differently to support the work goals, and that only works if it's a frequent occurrence.  Sometimes, forcing them to answer what you should stop doing will result in a very minor thing that isn't that critical but is easy to implement, and sometimes those minor things turn out to make a big difference later.  So, keep asking, and don't let them off the hook.

    Where it goes wrong

    Even though the tool is simple, it is often botched.  What will happen typically is that a manager will ask the first question, and the employee will say something easy.  Then when the second and third question come up, the employee gets nervous and says something like, "Oh, I can't think of anything right now," and the manager says "Okay" and looks a bit relieved, so the employee knows not to come up with something later.  

    Or the employee actually says something to stop doing, and the manager says, "Well, that will never happen because this is just how things work around here."  And then the employee will never be "able to think of something" that the manager needs to do differently.  Why go out on a limb, if the manager will just ignore it?  So it's really important that you either try  to find a way to implement their initial feedback or really take the time to explain why it can't be done right now and your thoughts on alternatives that might help.

    Note: the order of the questions matters.

    This is often called the Start/Stop/Continue model, but you'll notice that the order of the questions here is Continue/Start/Stop.  That is intentional: it helps both you and the employee to ease in to the tougher part of the conversation.  It builds trust if you respond well to the "start" and "continue" items, which are a bit safer, and you'll be more comfortable hearing the "stop" item because you will have gotten some positive feedback already.  You'll want to do it the same way every time to help build the "habit" of the upward feedback process on your team.

    Upward feedback makes being a manager easier.

    Your employees are the best positioned to tell you what they need from you as a manager.  If you ask them in the right way, you'll not only have the information you need to help the team be more successful, you will also have gained trust and respect from your employees.  Managing is so much easier when you know what your employees are really thinking, even if it's sometimes hard to hear.

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