© 2006-2010 Esther Derby

Author’s Note: In general, anonymous feedback in the workplace doesn’t work. It destroys trust, and doesn’t give the opportunity for followup, clarification, or problem-solving.

But there is an exception.  Sometimes the only way to get feedback up the chain–from direct reports to managers–is to use a process that anonymizes individual responses, and allows for open discussion of the results.

Once a manager establishes that he is open to feedback, will act on feedback, and does not retaliate, people may be more willing to give direct feedback. As long as managers have power to rate, promote, fire, and influence careers, it’s going to take extra effort to receive clear and honest feedback from people in a position of less power.


Like everyone else, managers need feedback to know how they are doing and where to adjust their actions. Managers may receive feedback from their managers; that’s necessary, but not sufficient. Managers also need feedback from the people they manage.

For information on how you are interacting with and supporting the people who report to you, go to the source.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to obtain feedback from direct reports. When I ask knowledge workers why they don’t give their managers feedback, here’s a sample of what I hear:

“If I criticize him, I’ll see the effects when it comes to annual salary reviews.”

“Feedback is a one-way street with my manager.”

“It’s not my job. He should know now he’s doing. He’s the manager, after all.”

Beliefs about hierarchy can belie the truth that all relationships are co-created—even relationships between managers and direct reports. So as a manager, you may have to work extra hard to receive clear, honest, and direct feedback about how the people who report to you perceive you and how you are affecting their ability to accomplish the goals of the organization.

Even if you have built a foundation of trust, you’ll have this obstacle to overcome when you seek feedback from your staff. If the trust in your group is low, rebuilding trust is the first priority. Asking for feedback can be part of that—if it’s handled carefully. I’ll say more about this later.

Before you start the process of obtaining feedback, ask yourself if you are really willing to hear the feedback and act on it. Going through this exercise and not making any changes will cause cynicism. Gathering data and then punishing people will cut off your source of information. Acting hurt will telegraph to people that you can dish out feedback, but you can’t take it. You may hear information that is surprising or unsettling. You may learn that other people don’t see you as you see yourself, or that others’ perceptions don’t match your intentions.

If you can affirm that you are willing to hear uncomfortable information and are willing to take at least some action, then proceed. If not, take some time to reflect on why, and consider using a coach or taking a management style assessment to begin learning about how others might perceive you. Once you’ve decided to go ahead, set aside at least two team meetings for the feedback process. Overall, the process takes about a week.

Meeting #1: Identify the Characteristics and Behaviors That Matter to the People in Your Group

State the purpose of the meeting by saying something along these lines: “I want to do my best to support you by creating an environment where you can do the work we need to do. To do that, I need information about what you feel is most important for me to do, and how my actions are supporting you in those areas.” Provide an overview of the process and explain how you’ll use the data. Ask the group to individually brainstorm the qualities and behaviors most important to them. Use stickies to do an affinity sort. Have the group attach a descriptive name to each affinity group. Most groups end up with five to seven groupings.

After the meeting, create a short survey to collect data. The survey might look something like this.

Characteristic & Assessment



1=Behavior in this area is getting in our way

3=Could do more/differently here

5=Keep doing what you are doing

Note that the ratings don’t express a judgment about the person, such as “poor” or “outstanding.” Use wording that focuses on behaviors, not an assessment of your goodness as a person. Distribute the survey, and create a way for people to return it anonymously. Ask that the surveys are returned in time for you (or someone else in your group) to collate the data.

Meeting #2: Discuss the Data

The numbers don’t have meaning in and of themselves, and they won’t tell you what to consider changing, what to stop doing, or what to continue. But they will help start a discussion.

Start the meeting by stating the purpose: to have a frank discussion about what people need from you. Vague generalities won’t help. You need specific behavioral examples of what you are doing that has a positive impact on the group and what you are doing that gets in their way. For areas where the team would like to see something different, engage in problem-solving and identify several possible options.

Here’s what one manager’s data looked like:


Ask for specific concrete behavior examples in each category. One manager I know responded to a low number for “availability” without asking for more specific information.  She instituted office hours and handed out her home phone number. But that wasn’t what her staff wanted. Their assessment reflected the fact that she took phone calls and answered email during meetings (which she continued to do during her “office hours”). You need to hear from the people in your group what you are doing or not doing that leads to their assessment. For areas where your staff sees you at the low end of the scale, ask “What one or two things can I change—either start doing or stop doing—that will improve my effectiveness?”

Chances are that some things you do as a manager will please some and displease others. In some cases, you can have it both ways. For example, if one person in your group feels you check the status  day-to-day work too often and another appreciates your interest and attention, you can adjust your style for each person (assuming that the person who doesn’t like day-to-day attention can work independently). In other cases, you’ll have to abide by the old adage “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

If your team tells you that something you feel is critical to your job is driving them crazy, explain what is behind your behavior, i.e., the management goal you are trying to achieve, and ask them to work with you to find other ways to accomplish that goal. One manager was annoying his team by inserting himself into technical discussions and decisions that the group felt they should be making. He explained that he was concerned that they didn’t have all the facts and might make a decision that would work short-term but would be detrimental over the long term. Once the team understood his concern, they were able to move into problem-solving. The manager and the technical staff agreed that the manager would provide context, set boundaries, and be clear on whether he was looking for a recommendation or a final decision.

Be prepared for surprises. You may learn that you have habits that get in your way. One manager learned that her staff inferred that she didn’t like to hear bad news because she furrowed her brow and scrunched up her face when staff members informed her of problems. They believed her facial expression meant she was mad at them. This manager believed she’d never be able to completely control her expression. But once she was aware of the effect her facial expression had, when she caught herself scrunching up her face, she explained that she wasn’t angry, she was concentrating.

Rebuilding Trust

If the trust level in your group is too low for this method, consider having a neutral party  facilitate the process (perhaps someone from the HR department). A neutral party can help ensure that people feel free to state their perceptions, and help you absorb the feedback and choose how to act on it. Asking for feedback can be the first step in repairing relationships, if you are prepared to take a hard look at yourself and act on what you learn.

Manage Expectations

Whether you are starting from a position of high trust or low trust, your group won’t expect you to be a completely changed person after the discussion session. Just as you wouldn’t expect your direct reports to make 15 behavioral changes in the course of the week, your staff won’t expect that of you either. You may ask them, “If I can change just one thing in the next month, which is most important to you?” Your team will expect you to listen carefully to their feedback, consider their perceptions, and make at least some adjustments.