Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey

An Upward Feedback Survey is an opportunity for a manager to get actionable feedback from their team about their performance. In January, I conducted my first Upward Feedback Survey. Here's a look at what inspired me to do it, the process, and lessons learned.

Background

Over the past year or so, we have adapted to a changing workplace. In a matter of days, we went from seeing each other daily to working at home, behind a screen, with no clarity on what lied ahead. It was confusing and uncomfortable.

The partners and I care deeply about maintaining and constantly improving our culture as an agency. Through all of this, culture became an even higher priority. To me, culture means:

  • How we work (process)
  • How we work together (collaboration)
  • How we feel while we do both (camaraderie)

With 2020 coming to a close, I reflected on all of the changes since transitioning to a distributed team. As a manager, it is up to me to create an environment for my team to do their best work; this means they need to feel good, be motivated, and be challenged. To keep a pulse, I had several intimate conversations with them, individually and as a group.

These conversations revealed new insights on workload, process changes, collaboration challenges, and life events. While these were all important to address, there was one critical topic missing: me! How was I doing as a leader? What could I be doing better to support my team? Did the team feel heard? Did they trust me? Feel trusted? Until January, the answers to these questions were all based on my assumptions.

Conducting the Upward Feedback Survey helped close the gap by getting real input on what I could to be a better manager and leader. The feedback was there (it is always there); I just had not created the space to address it.

The Questions

For the questions in the survey, I used Google's framework as a reference. The goal is to inspire the employee to look at their manager (in this case, me) from different angles and think deeply about their relationship. Some questions are more direct than others, but as a whole, they provide a comprehensive look at how the manager is performing. Let's analyze each question.

The following questions are answered on a Lickert scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

I would recommend my manager to others.

Why I asked: This first question is a gut check. If your direct report would not recommend you to others, this is a signal that there is an issue. For the employee, starting this high-level gets the wheels turning about their general sentiment toward their manager.

My manager assigns opportunities that challenge me and help me develop in my career.

Why I asked: So much about employee engagement and growth is project assignments. If the employee is consistently feeling bored, they are likely to look elsewhere, even with a supportive manager. As a manager, your job is to provide opportunities that stretch each employee out of their comfort zone and push them to the next level.

My manager gives me actionable feedback regularly.

Why I asked: Everyone needs feedback to get better. It is not uncommon to give feedback to an employee only to later find that it was not clear or not understood as feedback. There are other ways to tackle that problem; however, this question helps surface if it is one.

My manager provides the autonomy I need to do my job.

Why I asked: This question is a personal favorite. As managers, there is a fine line between helping guide employees and micro-managing. Unfortunately, not every employee is willing to vocalize being micro-managed. Some may not even realize it, and in truth, a well-intentioned manager may be holding them back. Answers to this question can be very telling. If addressed, they can not only improve the relationship with their employee but unlock their potential.

My manager consistently shows consideration for me as a person.

Why I asked: We are all human. When work gets busy, it can be easy to focus on what needs to get done and forget to check on team sentiment. The goal here is to make sure the manager has not fallen into that trap.

My manager keeps the team focused on priorities, even when it’s difficult.

Why I asked: This question reminds me of the age-old tale of a manager walking by an employee's desk, sharing an idea from their dream the night before. The employee drops everything and goes after it. There is a downstream impact, and the manager reaches out to ask what happened. The employee references the manager's overnight epiphany. The manager says, "Oh, that was no big deal. Just an idea." Sure, the employee could have asked for clarification. However, as a manager, we must be clear and keep the team on track with priorities.

My manager openly shares information from leadership when relevant.

Why I asked: Employees want to understand how and why their work is meaningful to the agency. While this may be clear to the manager through conversations with the leadership team, it is up to the manager to keep their team up to speed, especially in pivotal moments. There may be team-wide conversations, but these cannot replace more intimate conversations between a manager and their team. I often do this ahead of any big announcements to make sure the message is clear. It's also a great way to gather feedback for leadership before making the team-wide announcement.

My manager has the know-how required to manage me effectively.

Why I asked: The intent of this question is simple, to highlight how confident the employee feels about their manager's skillset in the given discipline. If scores are anywhere near 5 or below, that is a flag. It will be worth digging into more during the review process (below). Likely it's a sign that the employee is not getting the training they need, or they see gaps in the team's capabilities.

The actions of my manager show they value the perspective I bring to the team, even if it is different from their own.

Why I asked: Big one! Managers have the tough job of driving the team toward a vision without coming on too strong or leaving people feeling dismissed. This question can provide insight into how effective the manager is with inspiring their team while listening to what they have to say and integrating it, as necessary, into the vision.

My manager makes tough decisions effectively (e.g. task prioritization, high-pressure project decisions, competing views between teams).

Why I asked: When an employee is having a tough time making a big decision or feels hesitant about a group decision, they will often look to their manager for guidance. In addition, there are plenty of other high-value decisions that a manager needs to make on an ongoing basis. The goal here is to check in with the team and find out how effective they think their manager is in doing both.

The next two questions are free-response.

What would you recommend your manager keep doing?

What would you have your manager change?

Why I asked (both): The framing here is the key. If we asked for growth areas, the employee may hesitate, feeling like they don't have the authority to tell a manager how they should be growing. These questions get the same result. It is more natural for employees to share what they enjoy when working with their manager and what bothers them. Since these questions are free-response, they can be helpful for the manager in defining specific growth areas to develop.

The Process

We use Lattice for our reviews, but for this first run, I used Google forms. Here's how I conducted the process.

Step 1: Send the Email

Upward Feedback was not part of a team-wide review cycle and was a first, so I sent an email to let the team know what I was asking them to do and why their feedback was valuable.

Here's the email I sent to my team in January:

Happy Friday!

As we head into the new year, I'd love to gather some feedback from you on my role as your manager. I want to be as effective for you as I can and I value your insights.

Please complete this survey at your earliest convenience, and no later than [date]: [include link]

The survey is anonymous. If you'd like to share your name with your responses, I've included a question at the bottom to do so.

Please reach out with any questions.

Thank you! Appreciate it.

Lucas

Step 2: Review Results

Once the results came in, I took time to review and reflect. Here are some questions I asked myself:

  1. What are some common themes?
  2. What was surprising? Why?
  3. What actionable ideas do you have for improvements?
  4. Is there any feedback you expected to see that did not get mentioned? What was it? Why did you expect it?
  5. What areas need more clarification?

After compiling some notes and thoughts, I reviewed them with our CEO, Peter. I found talking through with Peter to be helpful and enjoyed hearing another perspective.

Step 3: Feedback Review

This step is where it all came together. I scheduled one hour with my entire team to review the results. I opened up the Google form results and shared my screen so we could walk through the questions one-by-one. The idea here was to be vulnerable and create an open dialogue among the team about my performance. By doing this, my hope was to model behavior and show them that feedback is essential, and we should not be afraid to address it head-on.

While the feedback form was anonymous, I found that people spoke up during our session. With everyone together, the discussion transcended the individual responses. I began noticing trends across the team, and having the team together helped provide clarity.

My approach to the session was to act as an information archaeologist. I tried my best to remain unbiased or defensive. I knew that if I came ready to explain myself on every point, people might shut down. It could appear that I was not willing to listen. At Barrel, one of our maxims is "feedback is information." From this perspective, it is not my job to tell someone how they should feel or litigate the feedback. It is my job to listen, take action, and create change.

Step 4: Follow Up

During Step 3, I took a ton of notes. Following the meeting, I reviewed and synthesized the notes into 2-4 big themes with actions I could take to create change. After completing this process, we did it again with our design director, Christine and added an additional step.

Christine and I reviewed her action items and she shared them with her team, asking for feedback and confirmation. This correspondence was her commitment to them and only served to strengthen her relationship with her direct reports. But of course, the follow through is everything.

Lessons Learned

Avoid Anonymity

After going through the process with my team, I questioned whether or not I would make it anonymous again. I did include the option for people to write their names, and only one person did.

I opted to go anonymous from the start because I worried that people would not be honest otherwise. However, after conducting the feedback meeting, everyone openly shared their responses.

In the end, I wouldn't make it anonymous again. Instead, I'd underscore the importance of Upward Feedback and encourage the team to be forward with their thoughts. My hope would be that after completing the first session, it would open the doors for more honest conversations down the line.

Another reason it can be helpful to avoid anonymity is for individual follow-ups. The group session is incredible, but there may be outliers. It is ideal to be able to follow up with folks for clarity before the group discussion. If responses are anonymous, this is impossible.

Discover the Unsaid

After participating in my Upward Feedback Survey, Design Director Christine immediately approached me about doing it with her direct reports. She enjoyed the conversation we had as a group and wanted to get the same inputs from the designers she manages.

Christine and I followed the process outlined above. Since I am her manager, I was a part of every step. I was not only proud of her desire to get feedback but delighted to see how willing her direct reports were to giving it to her. The feedback discussion hit on key points that were left unsaid, or in some cases, were discovered on the spot.

If you ask Christine, the feedback was invigorating for her. She now feels like she has the tools to be fully effective with her team. In addition, the doors have been opened for an honest dialogue, at all times, between her and her team. I would say the same for me.

Tailor It for You

While the Upward Feedback process outlined above was successful, we saw an opportunity to make the survey itself more tailored to Barrel and what we value in our managers. Since experimenting with Upward Feedback in January, we've established Barrel Management Principles, these act as the foundation for Upward Feedback and what it means to be an effective manager at Barrel.

On Monday, we officially kick off the new Upward Feedback process for all Barrel managers. It includes a manager evaluation, manager self-assessment, and a final report. I'm excited to see the results and look forward to sharing the updated process with you in the future!

Sooner Than Later

Do not fret if you have been a manager for some time and have not gone through this process. Looking back, I do wish I did it earlier, but it is never too late. Even if you feel like you have a strong relationship with your team like I did, there is always feedback to give. Do not let your assumption be an excuse not to uncover it.