Managing Up: Why Great Bosses Let Employees Pile on the Critiques

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 3:08 PM EDT

Linda Hill is a professor focusing on leadership and organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School. In the first part of our discussion, she told us how managers need to guide their own professional development. Last week, we discussed how important it is to "manage up" by understanding the boss's motivations. We conclude our discussion this week with why good bosses seek out employee feedback -- even when it's negative.

BNET: An important part of "managing up" is requesting feedback, but also giving upward or 360-degree feedback. How can this affect the dynamics within a company?

Hill: More and more companies are introducing this. One of the cases I wrote two years ago was about a CEO who created a system where anyone in his company could fill out his 360-degree feedback form, and all the information would be put on the company's intranet. So, he's really engaged in a discussion with the company, and this is a large, global firm doing this, HCL Technologies, which has 50,000-plus employees.

He figures if he is asking everyone else to listen to their performance appraisals and feedback, he, as a role model, has to do it himself. He did this in a really extreme way; I don't think I've met another CEO who has done it in quite this way. Everything is up there for all employees to see, and then he engages in a dialogue on the intranet and even face-to-face about the feedback he's received from the organization.

BNET: Has he heard anything shocking so far?

Hill: Most of the messages are "dirty," as he puts it; he means they are not soft and polite...people are very blunt. He gets lots of bad news, sure, but in general they think he's an excellent leader and transparent, clearly, and people appreciate that. He talks a lot in his own entries about how he personally is trying to improve in his own professional development. He talks about how hard it is for him as the CEO and admits, "Look, I don't have the answers for everything. I understand you all say we should do this and that, but we in management haven't yet figured out what to do yet." He also writes questions back to the whole company, saying "I need some insight. This is what I'm worrying about. What do you think about this?"

BNET: This CEO was proactive in getting feedback-to the extreme. What do you do when you want to manage up and you have a boss who never asks for any form of upward feedback?

Hill: Well, here's the way I've done it as I've tried to manage my own career at HBS. If I'm giving someone feedback positive or negative, for some reason, I think they need to know this information. It will help reinforce things they are doing well, or prevent them from making the same mistakes.

When I give feedback, I always separate out their intent from what their impact was on me personally or on the larger organization. I always admit that it's just my perception. I will tell you that no matter what you do, sometimes people will get really mad at you anyway. Sometimes, they will know what you are saying is true, but get defensive because you don't present it in the most constructive way.

I've had a couple of "bosses'-deans, here at HBS, actually-who said they appreciate the feedback. One said publicly, "I guess it's good that I always know what Linda thinks about what I have done. I wish more of you would tell me like she does. Just be gentle."

I've talked to one manager in my research in particular who said she often give feedback to her executives that was critical. And even when they got mad at her, she still felt like it was part of building up a greater feeling of trust and credibility, because they always knew there were no hidden agendas with her. Bosses are human; if you make them feel too vulnerable in a high-stakes circumstance, they may not be as "grown up" about the situation as you would like."

  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."