should you give honest feedback about your manager?

A reader writes:

I have been at my job for about 8 months and it’s time for everyone’s annual review. I’ve been asked by the director of my organization (my boss’s boss) to provide written feedback on my boss. This feedback is meant to be used in my boss’s annual review. In theory, it seems like a potentially useful opportunity to improve the organization. However, in practice, I’m not sure if it’s possible to do it gracefully.

The director and my boss have worked together for many years and are good friends. However, I have a tense working relationship with my boss, as do many people in the organization, and my boss has been asked to attend additional management training based on previous feedback. From what I’ve witnessed, my boss does not handle criticism well. Given our tense relationship and my status as a relatively new employee, I’m extremely reluctant to do anything that might make our relationship more challenging, such as providing criticism of my boss. I am especially reluctant to do so in writing to someone who is apparently my boss’s good friend. The director has promised that my comments will be kept anonymous, but I am the only person my boss supervises, so I am not sure that my comments will be truly anonymous. Other staff members have told me that they have given feedback that was used directly in their bosses’ performance reviews and so it did not remain anonymous.

Is it common to be asked to give feedback on your boss to his or her boss? And what should I do? I don’t feel like I can give much positive feedback, but I feel like simply giving a positive review would be a lie. I really just want to decline to respond, but then don’t want to be seen as difficult or “not a team player.”

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Gentle One

    Perhaps you could provide a couple of comments prefaced with the words “it would be helpful to me if Wakeen did thus and such”?

    1. Ad Astra

      That’s what I was thinking. If you have a critique that definitely won’t sound personal or petty, and phrase it as a request or suggestion rather than a complaint, you might be able to share that piece of feedback. And even that requires a somewhat reasonable boss who can handle at least some criticism.

      In this situation, I don’t see any way to safely share your full, honest assessment of your boss — unless it’s a glowing review, and it doesn’t sound like it would be.

    2. OriginalYup

      Neutral, hopeful statements work well.

      “Wakeen has a very busy schedule, which can make it difficult to find time for in-depth discussions. I’d love to find more ways to support Wakeen in this.”

      “Wakeen already receives a lot of questions about strategy ABC from people at different levels, so I’m not sure about the best way to present my questions when they arise. I worry that I might be bothering Wakeen with items that have already been addressed and causing him undue frustration.”

    3. Mints

      I would do a couple of these (like three max) and I would word them vague enough, that even if I was confronted, I could be pretty neutral. Then I would give a bunch of nonsense positive feedback too. “Boss has great enunciation in meetings” “Boss always conscientiously brings non smelly food for lunch” “Boss bought me a Coke last month.” Not seriously, but I’d rather give a tiny amount than back out completely

  2. cuppa

    I like the last paragraph:
    “organizations that get useful feedback from employees are the ones who are thoughtful about creating the conditions where employees can safely give it. If they don’t bother to, it’s not your burden to take on.”
    So true and important, and so many places don’t understand why they don’t get useful feedback.

    1. Sharon

      True. The trap I often fall into are places where management sounds sincere in asking for feedback, and then either completely disregard it, hand-wave it away with excuses, or put you on the unwritten “political enemies” list.

      It’s very sad that I’m cynical, but I got this way from much experience.

  3. Bend & Snap

    I would stay 1000 miles away from this, but that’s just me.

    I’ve posted this here before, but we had a bunch of people get burned by an “anonymous” survey at a former company. The leadership team used the results as a witch hunt for managers whose teams were unhappy, and those comments were used in PIPs, verbal beatings and one firing. I didn’t have any issues but some of my colleagues did and we had three people quit over it on the same day. Total disaster.

    In this case, I think the OP needs to look out for herself, and there’s not a lot to be gained by being candid.

    1. voyager1

      Wow, I am curious about this. Did the survey give names of people who management then went after?

      1. Bend & Snap

        Each employee had a unique link to the survey, so they were ID’d instead of anonymous, even though they told everyone it was anonymous. The people reviewing the survey results could then tell who the managers were.

      2. A Non

        In my experience, management can more or less guess who’s who based on the answers. Unless you’re in a response pool of thousands of people, assume whoever’s doing the survey will know who you are.

    2. anonanonanon

      I encountered a similar situation at my last company. Everyone was sent a survey that promised to be anonymous and was conducted by a third party, but turns out management had the ID numbers for each survey so could track down anyone who said anything negative. People were fired, “bonuses/raises” were eliminated, and they cracked down on rules. They even humiliated people at a giant town hall meeting over their complaints (which ended up backfiring because people ended up calling them out on their BS).

      I have no problem owning up to anything negative I write or say, but I’ve still been wary of “anonymous” surveys ever since that incident.

      1. Ama

        I participated in a bike share survey at a previous employer that got turned into an excuse for the executive VP to lecture everyone via mass email about our working hours being 9-5 and people shouldn’t be indicating they would need the bikes inside those hours. I have remained dubious of “anonymous” workplace surveys ever since.

        Although we at least got some measure of revenge when same employer was so proud that they’d been nominated for Forbes’ best places to work list and asked us all to complete another survey so they could advance to the next round. The results of that particular survey were, strangely enough, never mentioned again.

        1. Delyssia

          Wow. So apparently you weren’t supposed to ever have days off where you might want to use the bike share. Nor were you supposed to even consider going for a bike ride at lunch. Certainly, you should never run a work-related errand during the day via bike share.

    3. China my China

      Yeah. Sad, but as a general rule, whenever anyone tells you that something is “anonymous”, you should just ignore them and assume that no, your input will not be anonymous. This holds for work, school, government, whatever.

    4. The Count of Monte Cristo

      I took a survey that I thought was anonymous where I called the CEO -who works 20 feet from me- a fucking dushebag. Later, a floor director pulled me aside and said that it wasn’t professional for me to say that.
      Surveys are protected by freedom of speech and if your company is a CARSCO member( The parent organization that dictates survey ethics) the floor director had no right to reprimand me on this. The moment he identified me as the culprit he violated the policy of confidentiality. Frankly if you don’t want an honest opinion, don’t ask for one.

    5. Betty

      I just had to give my boss feedback and it wasn’t good… I’m pretty sure I’m getting fired out our meeting on Monday morning.

  4. Lily in NYC

    Ha, great stock photo as usual. We also give feedback on our bosses during review season, but people tend not to be critical because things here that are supposed to be anonymous never are. However, we recently had an office-wide survey and I’m pretty sure my former division head was fired as a result (people were completely fed up and specifically called him out on the survey). It was really morale-boosting to see an incompetent bully receive consequences for his behavior.

    1. Pennalynn Lott

      I keep seeing comments about stock photos on these columns (over at Inc.), but when I click on the article, there’s only a headline and no photo (other than the small head shot of Alison). I’m sad that I’m missing out!

      1. Liza

        Pennalynn, when I go to those articles it usually takes a little bit for the picture to show up–just a moment or two for me, but it might take longer on your computer. You could try leaving the page open for a few minutes to see if a picture appears.

      2. Kas

        Pennalynn, you might to check your Javascript settings. I have a Javascript blocker on my browser, which lets me permit scripts on a site-by-site basis, and the stock images don’t show up for me unless I have given my browser permission to run scripts from inc.com.

  5. Mena

    Don’t.Do.IT.
    Just don’t. You already know that Boss doesn’t react to feedback well. AND you know that Boss’s Boss is a good friend. AND you are a new employee with a tense relationship with the Boss.

    Lots of good reasons to not touch this one.

    1. NickelandDime

      I wouldn’t do this either. Where in the things she described did she get even a glimmer of hope that anything she says will be taken to heart and things will improve? I also strongly believe in these cases, the bosses’ boss knows the deal. She wouldn’t be telling the person anything they don’t already know.

  6. Ann Furthermore

    I did a 360 review for my boss last year. She’s an awesome manager, but there are a couple things she does that have bothered me in the past. The big one was being very critical of people who leave the team. She takes that very personally, and tends to badmouth people after they leave, and discount the contributions they made while they were here.

    In my feedback I said that I’ve heard her make comments about former members of the team that were very different than my own personal experiences with those individuals. While I wasn’t privy to her dealings with them, our disparate points of view were a good example of there being 2 sides to every story, and the truth usually residing somewhere in between. To my boss’s credit, I think she took that to heart. I have not heard her make those types of comments for quite awhile. The only thing she has said recently was about a guy who left a couple years ago, and her only remark was, “He had his own ideas about things.” And she’s right — he definitely did.

    If you have to do this, start off with the good things about your boss. That’s what I did. I talked about her years of experience with the company, and her extensive knowledge about all the company’s products and services, because she can really explain things clearly to people on the team who don’t work with that side of the business (like me, as my main focus is on finance). I also mentioned that she doesn’t micromanage her team, and is flexible about schedules and working from home, and that she trusts us all to get our work done and meet our deadlines. And, I also said that I really appreciate that if someone is doing something that’s impacting their job, she brings it to that person’s attention right away. Assuming that the person addresses and rectifies the issue, the matter is considered closed, and everyone moves on, rather than ambushing you with it in your performance evaluation. Then I wrapped it up by saying that we all have areas in which we can improve, but that overall my boss is great and I really enjoy working for her.

    So…if you have to do this, choose your words very carefully, and list some positive things too. Then it won’t seem like you’re just piling on. And keep it purely about the work aspect, and keep the personal stuff out of it.

    1. Mena

      I was invited to a 360 review of my boss and I didn’t participate. Too much personal risk for too little gain. Just not worth it.

  7. Mike C.

    My workplace is really great about allowing for this sort of feedback, and it has really, really helped our organization improve.

    Of course, they don’t punish us for shooting the messenger either so there you go.

  8. Poppy

    God this comes at an unbelievable time … I just got pulled into my boss’s boss’s office to talk about my boss … and how unhappy he is making our team. Big Boss is worried that we will all leave … I was honest and told him that was a possibility if things didn’t change. Now I want to run and hide and never come back!

    1. Bend & Snap

      That’s totally different–sounds like management is aware of an acute and urgent problem!

      1. Poppy

        Yeah, Big Boss has observed the unhappiness, he was just looking for confirmation. But as soon as that feedback is relayed to Boss, we’re all worried there will be HELL TO PAY!

    2. Anne S

      I’ve had good luck with being honest in a situation as well. The head of our department was, frankly, not very good at his job, and it was causing serious morale problems throughout the department. He was a nice guy, but his failure to take of his responsibilities made our lives much harder than they needed to be. His boss got feedback from a number of us (which was fairly universally negative), and the department head ended up being replaced. But in that case, the boss’s boss had already proved himself to be a reasonable person who would handle the criticism of his report in a professional manner. In a case more like the letter writer describes, I’d be much more hesitant to offer critical feedback like that.

  9. Anonymous Educator

    I had something like this come up at one of my former workplaces. It was a 360 review via online survey at a small organization, and I didn’t lie, but I didn’t leave any written feedback either—just rated the numbers. I knew if I’d written anything, all semblance of anonymity would fly out the window.

  10. Stephen King's Constant Reader

    This is actually really relevant for me right now.

    I’ve been job hunting and I think something good will happen soon. I’m a PT employee and I know that I’m not obligated or expected to give feedback on my experience and probably won’t have an exit interview, but lately I’ve been strongly considering ways in which I can do this. I like my manager a lot as a person, but she really is a terrible boss. She’s extremely disorganized, chronically late (even for crucial meetings), absent at least twice a week, and plays the blame-game like crazy (i.e. she didn’t get something vital done because of so-and-so, etc.). The issue is that she covers a lot of this up by sending lots of emails while “sick”, talking very fast to cover up inconsistencies, and fudging her timesheets, so while people may have some idea of how bad it is, they probably aren’t as enlightened as they think.

    I and the other employee in my office have tried to ignore her antics and just get the job done, even going so far as to forge ahead with initiatives that, as the director, she should have worked on, but even that falls apart. There are things that she literally just needs to read and approve since we’ve done the hard part already, but she never does. We’ve tried being proactive and scheduling meetings to talk about stuff that we don’t understand very well (the other employee is quite new and since I’m not full-time, there are things I just can’t train her on), and she either cancels or flat out refuses to have the meeting. There are also meetings with stakeholders we’ve ran despite the fact that they came to speak to her, more-or-less learning how to do things along the way because we had no choice.

    I have been telling myself that I need to just get out of here and never look back, which I am doing, but my moral compass has been eating away at me. The icing on the cake is the fact that our office puts forth some major changes in the way that the offices across the entire corporation need to do things (think race and gender initiatives), so they likely already think of us as somewhat irritating and troublesome and I really don’t feel that we need the additional label of being incompetent. I know it’s not my job to save anyone, but this work is actually pretty important to me and she is completely botching all the good stuff we try to do by just being lazy. Couple that with the fact that I know I’ll have to hire an energetic, reliable employee to fill my spot that is just as good as me (if I can toot my own horn here), and I don’t know how I’m going to look them in the face and act like this is a great, reasonable gig. It can be a great gig—just not as is.

    Basically, I think I’ve found my answer in this article. Unfortunately my boss doesn’t take criticism well and I feel pretty strongly that she could retaliate against me if she hears anything bad, even if I’m on my way out. So this sucks.

    1. Ruffingit

      It does suck. Been there where the work was important to me and I wanted to make positive changes because of that. BUT…not your circus, not your monkeys. When you leave, someone else will come in and you can choose at that time to be honest with them that their job will actually consist of doing a lot of things that the director should be doing. That is just being fair to the new person so they know what they’re walking into. Otherwise though, just move on. This woman has been there for awhile and no one cares what she is doing obviously. One would think the shareholders would say something about her two employees running the meetings and so on rather than her, but they haven’t so, it is what it is. Get out. There’s nothing more you can do here.

  11. Workfromhome

    Don’t do it.
    If you must put something in writing no matter how anonymous they claim it is you must write either positive or the positive spun feedback.

    If your boss is good at setting deadlines say that.
    If your boss is not around enough don’t say “boss is not around enough” Say “Boss gives lots of valuable input and help it would be great if I could get more time with boss to benefit from his experience”

    Negative feedback no matter how true it is will likely have nothing but poor consequences when a boss is known to not take it well. You can be sure it will come back on you.

    We were asked to do anonymous surveys years ago (they don’t even bother to ask anymore since its become very obvious to employees that even if we had 100% dissatisfaction with something no changes will be made) Many people declined because it required you to say who the manager was and how many years you had worked. It would have been very easy to see who said what. They could also trace the IP of your PC or other methods if they wanted. Unless company culture is already very good with few problems to report no employee will (or should) trust that their feedback will truly not come back to bite them.

  12. some1

    I think it’s hard to remain anonymous, too, when the evaluation is short answer, vs “Rank your manager on a scale of 1-5”. We all have turns of phrase and parlance that we use that are coworkers are likely to recognize as being unique to us.

    I have actually only formally evaluated a manager once, and it turned out well. I think it all depends on how much support you have from your boss’s boss. If you know that your boss’s boss knows that they suck and hasn’t done anything about in years, than there’s no reason to think an anonymous eval will make any difference.

  13. Dawn88

    I’ve seen and heard this exercise backfire way too many times. Don’t do it! Say everything is great, you enjoy working with her, name something you learned from them (or make something up), you are happy to be there….whatever…..

    Can’t you picture it?
    “No, really Victoria….she said you were great.”
    “She did? Really? I don’t believe it.”
    “Yes. She said she loved working with you and your Excel tips were the best. She said you were a good role model.”
    “Really? She said that?”
    (Victoria says to herself…”I guess she’s trustworthy after all…I’ll lighten up on her then.”)

  14. Oryx

    I gave notice last week and that was the first thing my manager asked me. I think he always wants to make sure *he* is not the reason people leave and, if it is, he wants to use it as an opportunity to change what he does. In my case he’s not the reason and I was able to provide positive and honest feedback but man that was not the conversation I was expecting to have.

  15. AE

    It sounds like the boss’s boss is already aware of her weaknesses and has tried to address them. Honest constructive feedback would give her an idea of whether the (re)training has helped. What you notice this year may be peanuts compared to previous evaluations. Or, if there has been no improvement, there may be more aggressive corrective measures/training.

    In a perfect world, we would be able to give our bosses feedback directly, and I admit to not telling my boss when she hasn’t been helpful.

  16. Hiring Manager

    Don’t do it!!!!
    I wouldn’t say anything that I wouldn’t say to the bosses’ face. The whole relationship thing means this will get back to the boss.

  17. Artemesia

    I made the mistake of being honest (not super critical or ugly, but honest) in such a setting years ago and it was all bad. In this case, the boss and his boss are buddies — no way in hell would I be given honest feedback when I know it will not be anonymous and will affect my future work with my boss. If the big boss wants honest feedback, he would hire a consultant (not a friend but from a company that specializes in this) to talk with employees in a structured way and then present the strengths and weaknesses reported. In this situation, the most one should do is offer rather bland ‘It would be helpful if . . .’ comments and ‘I appreciate that he . . .’ comments and the it would be helpfuls should be easily done and not have a deep hidden barb.

    There is no good that can come from being honest in this kind of setup with a boss who doesn’t take criticism well and a big boss who is his good buddy. It is likely to lead to a bonding experience for them over what a jerk you are.

  18. Stranger than fiction

    Interesting timing – how about when it’s not an anonymous survey but just a survey sent to you by a manager for feedback on the dept or feedback on such n such weekly meeting? Someone close to me is experiencing this and also has an inexperienced manager. Is this A Thing they’re encouraging in leadership trainimg courses?

  19. If You Think That's Bad...

    Our boss recently sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of direct reports asking them to fill it out and return to him to help him write his self-evaluation. It included more neutral things like, “What has our team done well this year?” but also asked for specific feedback on his own strengths and weaknesses. Most people in our department could easily fill a full page on things they’d like him to do differently (or just STOP doing), but I sincerely doubt he got any honest feedback from the exercise since he has a history of being horribly defensive in the face of any perceived criticism. Also, the fact that it wasn’t anonymous pretty much guaranteed backlash for anyone who said anything negative (numerous people have told me they had the experience I had, that my performance review was focused on a sole instance of something I did one time that he didn’t like). I would still be wary of a situation like OP describes, but it would be infinitely better to be able to provide anonymized feedback to our boss’s boss rather than directly to him.

  20. Sunshine Brite

    Nope, nothing too in depth at all. I know someone who gave specific positive feedback on an anonymous survey which her boss’s boss or maybe one more level up used to win an award for her area that specifically excluded my friend and her boss due to their job classification.

  21. Ruffingit

    Not worth giving feedback in my view. It’s been my experience that nothing changes when such feedback is given except for the worst. Clearly, the boss in question isn’t going to get a grip and make the positive changes necessary moving forward. The OP notes he’s already been asked to attend additional management training and that obviously hasn’t done much good. So the director, who is also his buddy, is going to do exactly what about any negative feedback? I’m thinking not a darn thing except send this guy to more “training” which is probably most likely a nice golf vacation on the company’s dime where the training is presented in the golf cart.

    Just not worth it. Sorry to say, but when you have a management structure such as this where the director is the boss’s buddy, nothing generally changes.

  22. BananaPants

    No. No, no, no. This does not sound like an environment where the boss will thoughtfully consider and appreciate honest feedback.

    Close to 10 years ago my group had to do a 360 review for an incredibly ineffective manager (the 360 was ordered after a new hire – who we’d spent a lot of money hiring – left after 6 months because he couldn’t tolerate working for the guy). Most of the team was young and stupid and honest and it resulted in him sitting us down in a conference room, reading the comments about him, and demanding to know who said what. When no one took credit for the criticism he called us out individually to comment on his managerial skills in the meeting. Our 1:1 meetings were extremely unpleasant and he made me cry during mine. The entire team got torpedoed on our annual increases that year – he knew he was going down and made sure we all paid for it. I and at least three others had bad performance reviews out of retaliation. He was still our manager for close to another year before he could be shunted back onto a technical path, and it was awful.

  23. Graciosa

    I hate to agree that this is not the time to give honest feedback, but I have to.

    And it’s really a shame – honest feedback is the only way we, as managers, really get better. Formal training doesn’t tell you what your blind spots are, and by definition you’re not going to see them yourself.

    One thing to take away from this experience is how important this aspect of culture when considering a new job. Ask about it – find out how the new company gathers feedback about managers and evaluates their performance. Ask about how the boss responds to criticism (although “suggestions for improvement” might be a better word choice in an interview). Listen to what the employees say – and don’t say – in response.

    Employees should be just as serious about evaluating a prospective new boss in a job interview as the employer is about evaluating the candidate.

  24. Elfie

    We have to do a survey every six months that is run by a third party, and supposedly anonymous. Every time, I put a lot of time and effort into filing in the survey, even though I know that it will be ignored. I don’t particularly care whether I can be identified from it, as I stand by all of my comments. In fact, I’ve said them to Big Boss in a team meeting the other week (particularly about his management team not getting on – which they don’t, although they do seem to have bonded over their dislike of him!). However, the response I got, which was the epitome of hearing only what you want to hear, makes me wonder each time why I bloody bother. I should know better by now, but I can’t help but provide my feedback or opinion if outright asked for it! This, amongst many other things, it’s one of the reasons why I am looking for other jobs right now.

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