Upward Feedback

In today's era of Sarbanes Oxley and corporate scandals, the performance of management in organizations is under the scrutiny of stakeholders like never before. And rightfully so. Management can really screw things up royally if we are not vigilant.

In that "we," there is a crucial but often unsung group: the workers in an organization. Seldom do the workers have a way to give voice to how management is doing. But in some progressive organizations, there is a mechanism called "upward feedback." Here's an experience of mine with the process.

By way of a brief background to set the context, I had joined a young telecommunications company, founded in 1984 when "Uncle Sam" broke up the phone company. This decision established the so-called "Baby Bells" which were regional local operating phone companies. In this new telecommunications landscape, new forms of local competition became possible. It was out of this opportunity that my employer was born.

When I joined the company, it had grown steadily and was hitting its rapid growth spike, expanding throughout the country. Top management realized that a new way of operating was needed if we were to be successful against much bigger competitors on a national stage. A vision, mission, and values were written and communicated. Quality and Training departments were established. Survey processes to gauge Customer Satisfaction and Employee Satisfaction were started. Upward Feedback followed.

Some of the success factors in our Upward Feedback process were:

Alignment - The Upward Feedback instrument was aligned with our Values and Operating Principles. So the items were familiar to our people.

Top Level Support - The CEO provided visible support for the process, communicating its importance to Managers and Associates. All levels of management participated, right up to the executive level.

Consultant - We hired a consultant to assist us in this transformation. Based locally, he was able to devote a lot of time to us and worked closely with us on Upward Feedback, helping us design it, communicate it, and support managers on the back end.

Purpose - The aim of Upward Feedback was to improve managerial effectiveness. Our conviction was that, if employee satisfaction determines customer satisfaction, then the biggest influence on employee's performance and attitudes --namely what their bosses do and how they do it-- had to be managed. The primary consumer of a manager's behavior, his or her direct reports, must be heard. And heeded.

Development - Upward feedback was not directly tied to compensation, though there were consequences for managers whose Upward Feedback signaled trouble. Typically, the VP of HR would step in to provide coaching resources for these managers.

Training - Upward Feedback was embedded in a management development program. Some of the critical management development topics were the culture (i.e., the operating principles and behaviors) itself, basic supervisory skills, HR policies, and communication skills training, especially listening and how to receive feedback.

Communications - We were careful to over-communicate around a high-risk process like Upward Feedback. By high-risk I mean that it's scary for Associates to give feedback to a boss, and it's scary for Managers to get feedback from subordinates. Associates worry about anonymity and reprisals. Managers worry about the impact on their work relationships with Associates, as well as worries about their careers and
their paychecks.

Structure - We were careful to lay out how the Upward Feedback process works. There were a number of groundrules; for instance, the rule of 3. A manager would only get a feedback report if there are at least three Upward Feedback surveys sent in. Any less than three and anonymity could be compromised.

Support - Once managers got their feedback report, we made sure that there was follow-up support offered. We helped interpret the report and identify where action plans were needed. Further we helped craft development plans to build skills in targeted areas. We also helped facilitate meetings that managers were encouraged to have with their teams to share the plans that grew from the feedback.

Was this process perfect? No. Sometimes the execution was clumsy and confusing.
However, it was supported. It was home-grown. It was well-integrated. And we learned and improved as we went along.

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