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At my workplace, in addition to the traditional annual performance review, there also another process called "the 360" where each employee is assessed also by their subordinates and peers.

I will be interviewed by the department head (my manager's boss) in the near future about the performance of my manager. It turns out, unfortunately, that I have a very bad manager. I won't go into details because it is not the focus of the question but it is sufficient to say that this particular manager has had a history of problems with his team and this is well-known across the organization (my position, for instance, has had a turnover of 4 people in the past 2.5 years). The problems are mostly related to horrendously bad "soft-skills" with subordinates and collaborators in other departments.

The problem I face now is, to what extent, if any, I should criticize my manager's performance in the 360. The way I see it there are several approaches to take and I am not sure which one is best:

  • Provide a fake positive review or a "plausible" mix of trivial good/bad points. This org is cynical enough that such disingenuous behaviour is fairly acceptable and is taken to mean that one just wants to get on with their work and not make waves.
  • Be totally honest. I don't intend to do this because I am concerned about negative repercussions (just listed it for completeness).
  • Choose a particularly egregious negative trait that can be documented and try to back it up in an objective way. I could, for example, print out an email thread that demonstrates the poor judgement of this manager. The problem with that is I think it will look like I have a grudge with this person. Moreover, I don't feel 100% ethically comfortable with flinging around stuff from my inbox to people that weren't intended to read it.

The first approach seems to be the way to go. But is there an effective way to provide negative feedback in a 360?

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I want to post Admiral Ackbar "It's a Trap!" so badly :) –  maple_shaft Feb 4 '13 at 13:48
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" ... this particular manager has had a history of problems with his team and this is well-known across the organization ..." Well-known to whom? I've worked in places where the workers all knew who each other saw as bad managers, but upper level management seemed oblivious. That - at least in part - is because upper management values different things than the workers. –  GreenMatt Feb 4 '13 at 15:14
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A 360 review process is enough for me to look elsewhere for work. I have seen this stuff turn into cutthroat competition where several poor performers gang up to put down the best performers so they can get better payraises themselves. Alternatively, if you say something that senior management doesn't agree with (and nobody else is willing to bring up) then you put your own career at risk. 360 performance appraisals are a no-win scenario unless you are highly polictically connected (and thus can diss your co-workers without repercussion) and indicates the company is a terrible place to work. –  HLGEM Feb 4 '13 at 16:13

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

This is a difficult and subjective question, but I think there are several things that you should do in this situation. Companies employ this 360 degree feedback for a reason, and if the people you are speaking with are genuinely willing to actually do something about your feedback, I think it's worth pursuing the "telling the whole truth" option, with some caveats.

Firstly, you must find out whether anyone is prepared to take action based on your review. You need to speak directly with your interviewing manager and possibly with an HR rep before the review proper.

This would be a 1-on-1 meeting to go through exactly what you're saying in your question. That while you're willing to provide honest feedback, you're concerned about both repercussions and the fact that you don't think it's likely that substantial change will come out of the process.

Your goals for this pre-meeting should be:

  • Get the manager to understand and buy in to your point of view - this guy is making your job difficult and you actually want something done about it, you aren't just stirring up trouble, and nor do you want to provide a 'fake positive' review. You don't have a grudge, you just want to have a less toxic work environment.
  • Prepare the manager mentally for the review. Because he will now know what's coming, you don't have to stick to a single "this is an issue" in the meeting proper, but you will be able to cover more ground, be more honest and the interviewing manager, rather than going on the defensive, is more likely to understand and work with you.
  • Giving the manager time to think of possible solutions like transfer, managerial training, sensitivity training, and/or getting HR involved.
  • Provide the reviewing manager with your goal end-state for this situation. Do you want your manager gone, or would you be willing to work with him as long as he gets some training or agrees to work on aspects of his performance? Are you going to quit if the outcome is business as usual? If so, why have you waited so long to talk about this with a higher-up? You need to have the answers to these questions prepared.

If you don't get a positive response from the reviewing manager at this pre-meeting, walk away and decline to give feedback on your boss. If forced, provide a "fake positive" review. There's absolutely no point doing anything if nobody's interested in doing anything about it, and you may do a lot of damage. At this point I would continue to endure the behaviour, go to HR about it directly, or quit.


Assuming your pre-meeting goes well and you think the reviewing manager is receptive and willing to act on your feedback, attend the meeting proper. You should thoroughly prepare for this meeting by:

  • Identifying the types of bad behaviour from your boss. They should be things things that he does often and that are obviously bad for business.
  • Providing examples of each type of bad behaviour, either with emails or specific examples with dates, times, and names of other people that were present and are willing to corroborate your story. You should provide one egregious example of this behaviour, but be able to back it up with others if challenged.
  • For each example, explain how this affected your work and what you would have expected from a manager instead
  • Provide constructive thoughts on how you think this behaviour could be improved, including training, mentoring, etc.
  • Write down and print out this information, but only a single copy for your use as a script.
  • Be honest but constructive.
  • Don't use angry, inflammatory or emotional language.
  • Potentially provide some positive feedback on those things that your manager does do well (there has to be something, right?)

This way, you aren't going to be put on the spot in the meeting and you can stick to the script. If your reviewing manager defends the behaviour of your manager or otherwise becomes hostile, cut the meeting short. Just stop providing examples and skip to the positive bit. You can try to go over why you're doing this once again, but it rarely ends well.

The goal of this meeting is to convince the reviewing manager that this behaviour is real and that something needs to be done about it. I wouldn't leave the meeting without:

  • An agreement that some action needs to be taken
  • A date for the reviewing manager / HR to have decided on a course of action
  • An expectation for what you can expect as feedback (e.g. "I'll email you to let you know that me and HR have agreed a course of action which will commence within 6 weeks, but obviously I can't provide specifics".)

After all this, I wouldn't expect immediate change. If your problem boss does start behaving more appropriately, make sure you thank him for doing so, but obviously make it subtle.

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+1 for exploring motivation behind process. –  pap Feb 4 '13 at 13:36
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After chatting around, I think it is actually a minefield in my org. The 360 is a relatively new decree from uppermost management and HR and it is just another twist on the already dysfunctional traditional annual review we've done in the past. I have decided to hold my nose and play it safe-- apart from some trivial concerns with easy fixes. –  teego1967 Feb 4 '13 at 22:10

In reviews it is best to be honest. However how you word your answers is what you need to watch.

Avoid negative terms in a review. The reason for this is twofold.

  1. It makes you look like you are complaining, have a grudge.

  2. The senior manager may be friends with that manager.

Also be aware that managers do not like "Problems", they prefer "Solutions" they can act on.

So to give an example. Don't say something like "he has bad soft skills". Instead it would be better to explain that he should grow his soft skills to become a more effective manager.

Also don't make solutions all about the manager. Suggest things that can offer a solution in diffusing the situation but isn't directly related to the manager.

For example: Maybe the manager complains to subordinates about coming in late which is impacting morale. So suggest some kind of time keeping to better track engineers hours. You can then point out the hours spent late the previous days can ensure leeway, or maybe some engineers work better at a different start time.

TL;DR

  1. Be honest, but not brutally honest. Focus on what they "need to improve" not "what is wrong with them"
  2. Offer solutions to the senior manager, not what the problems are.
  3. Offer solutions which are not directly related to the manager.

If you want to learn more about these kinds of situations and how to handle them, I recommend reading material from George Kohlrieser. I don't have an internet link to his related material, but he goes into detail on how to handle this sort of situation.

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Thanks, I agree that focusing on solutions to problems rather than the problems themselves is more useful for the upper manager. I could be specific with problems and suggestions when the time comes. –  teego1967 Feb 4 '13 at 13:23
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+1 for the TL;DR section. I also strongly endorse the reminder that there is a difference between a "review" and "feedback" - it's about identifying improvement areas. I would combine this with jozzas's answer re. exploring beforehand what the actual motivation is behind this 360. Is it routine pro-forma, straight to the garbage, or is it an honest process that will be followed up on. Also, while it's helpful to offer suggestions on ways to improve, I would not get overly focused on that. The "how" is primarily a matter between your manager and his manager. –  pap Feb 4 '13 at 13:35

Do not go into the review with an agenda of trying to make your manager look bad.

If you do it is liable to come across to the person doing the review. The person doing the review may take that as an attack on management in general rather than on your specific manager setting you at odds with them.

It is important to be able to balance the good and the bad in the review.

Make a list of specific circumstances where your manager did well and those where there were failures. If all you point out is bad then your reviewer may think that you have a problem with the person rather than the job they are doing. That is not going to help you get your point across that the manager needs to improve.

Answer the questions asked not the ones you want asked

Before each answer take a moment to digest the question asked and assemble your response to the question that was asked. This is liable to mean that you do not get to share all of the problems you have with the manager. If management was concerned about those things they would have asked those questions. Trying to force anecdotes you want to share because you feel they make your manager look bad will distract from the constructive answer you have provided.

Try to stay unemotional

The best way to communicate your issues in constructively and unemotionally. If you appear frustrated, or excited the manager may think that the problems are more personal and less professional. Stay neutral, stick to the facts, and do your best to keep your emotions out of the evaluation. Do not get sucked into the good cop trap where the interview will appear to be on your side, or the bad cop where they will try and intimidate you to back off your responses. So stay unemotional and relate facts that apply.

Remember your interviewer is management not just a coworker

This is especially true if your manager is friends with the interviewer. And lets face it if your manager was bad at the corporate politics game you would not need to worry about this interview. They have allies and it is best to assume this interviewer is an ally of your manager. You do not want to make an enemy of either since these people have the ability to make your work life uncomfortable. And since you will spend nearly 1/3 of your waking hours at work, who wants that.

The Fallback Position

If you can not stay unemotional and stick to the facts the best course may be to be polite but nebulous. A good short non answer speaks volumes to those who want to hear it. If you can not think of anything other than short but polite answers when talking about your manager then management can read between the lines if they want to. And if they do not want to then the short polite answers will not hurt you.

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Honesty is not always the best policy when reviewing your manager for the simple reason that honesty only works in an environment of trust.

The person reviewing your review will probably be an upper level manager or Director of some kind. Chain of command dictates that you probably don't work very closely with this person so you don't know what kind of person this is or what their true motives are. Does this upper level manager inherently trust you? They probably know very little of you as well.

Secondly, will this manager see the review? They are usually not dumb and even if it is anonymous they are usually able to pretty accurately determine which of his subordinates wrote it, either by hidden clues or examples or by something as simple as writing style and various turns of phrase.

Finally, what is the political situation of management at this company? This is very important because often you have to consider that a bad middle manager with long tenure sticks around usually for political reasons. If it is so widely know that this manager is awful then why else would they still be around? Perhaps they are poker buddies with an upper level manager or Director and your "honest" review winds up on his best friends lap?

So ultimately, what do you gain by being honest about your manager? It is clear what you risk but what do you really gain? Your organization sounds averse to clearing out ineffective (by your definition) middle management and they are certainly already aware of his/hers weak soft skills. What is one more negative review going to do for anything to really change? Do you honestly believe they will try to remedy the situation?

Very likely not.

This is just one of many problems of being honest in any peer reviewed performance reviews, especially when subordinates are to review managers. As Joel Spolsky says it best, They do nothing but provide inaccurate performance metrics to management and they kill morale. If management actually decided to pay attention to their employees performance throughout the year and would sit down and talk with employees in frank and clear terms then they would get better feedback and everybody would do better overall.

So no, it is not in your best interest to be honest, but at the same time you do not want to outright lie either. Just tell them select pieces of the truth that are neither flattering nor condemning.

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I'd upvote 1000 times if I could. Performance reviews of this nature are highly political and are huge minefield if you don't know how the company politics works. The end results of a negative rating on your manager could very well be you losing your job as the manager will almost certainly end up aware as to who tried to throw him under the bus. Bad managers from the employee's perspective are often extremely good at office politics. –  HLGEM Feb 4 '13 at 16:05

Though this question is already well answered, I would like to reiterate based on my experience that it helps to know the relationship between your direct boss and your boss' boss. I worked for the great "garage" company which pioneered 'management by walking around'.

It happened that my boss was very biased towards a particular group of people in my team, and unfortunately I fell into the group though I was neutral. The 'group' my manager was unhappy was eventually fired. I thought this is the end of it, until I knew that my boss was thinking me as the only person left in that tribe, but had ignored me just because of my technical competency, and my name was last in his hit list.

Well, there was a 360 degree where my boss' boss asks me the feedback, and I had told him "everything" that happened in the last one year. Just after one week I was put into an "Improvement Plan", only then I came to know that it was my manager's boss who had the bias towards a particular group in my team, and its based on his decision the group members were fired :/ (Godfather movie style!)

Final thoughts from my perspective: - It always helps to understand the relationship between your boss and boss's boss, and your assumption about the relation might also be wrong - Take risk, be brave and 'speak up' - Before all of the above, have a job ready

If you are curious to know what happened, I did land in a job 5 months after the improvement plan, but that was the most stressful time of my life, and wished I had a quit on the day of the improvement plan.

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I've never been in this situation, so I can only surmise what I would do.

From the top, I would conclude that in the big picture, one isn't going to change another person. Therefore, nothing I am going to do is going to make a bad boss into a good boss. Furthermore, even good bosses have to deal with situations beyond their control, so one doesn't really know what constraints are affecting management attitudes or behavior. So in a situation where there are irritants, I would focus on one or two items that are A) something the manager can do something about and B) otherwise small scale and limited in scope.

In my business, it is common for someone to breeze in and say 'we need this by tomorrow, pretty please'. This 'someone' isn't normally the boss, it's usually the manager from a user department. The thing they need by tomorrow is probably 3 days of work - if I drop everything else that also has to be done by tomorrow. Whether my manager is an ogre or an angel doesn't matter - I would point out that users bypass the management layer for whatever reason and approach the developer(s) directly. This is a source of interruption and distraction. If at all possible, could we emphasize that users need to move through the management layers to get things approved and scheduled? Having three examples to attach is sufficient.

For this to happen, there's a larger issue than simply my direct supervisor - it's really an organization wide issue. It's appropriate for the manager of my department to consult with managers of other departments to reach a consensus on priorities. Thus I haven't really said anything specific about him or her, I've simply pointed out that the organization is wasting the time of (ahem) 'scarce talent'.

Having an emotional one on one certainly has it's risks. If, however, the boss is being whipsawed by the same behavior the developers or other employees are, such feedback really ends up in a conference where the management team looks at what they're doing. In this case you've supported your manager for a change he or she wants. You might be noting your dissatisfaction, but you aren't making it personal - or judgmental.

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