Downward Feedback: Is This the Best Review Structure For Your Company?
More often than not, feedback can have negative connotations for employees. Whether worried about a telling-off, not qualifying for their bonus this year, or being humiliated in front of co-workers, a lot can go wrong with feedback.
Of course, the type of feedback we're talking about here is downward feedback, where words, opinions, and guidance are passed down from a superior to a direct report. Pretty traditional in terms of performance reviews, but a strategy that 90% of Fortune 500 companies have replaced with 360-degree feedback systems instead.
Want to skyrocket the success of your feedback loops? Read on to learn how downward feedback works, its limitations, and how to incorporate it more meaningfully into 360 reviews.
What is downward feedback?
Downward feedback is the flow of information from managers or superiors to their direct reports.
In performance management, bosses deliver this type of feedback to support an employee's growth and development. But it can also be linked to admin topics like compensation and bonus qualifications.
You may recognize downward feedback as the only appraisal system offered by your organization. It's a relatively one-way form of feedback in that it happens at scheduled intervals (usually annually) and is often very formal. Managers tell employees what they think of their performance over the past year – and they listen.
Managers may cover the following topics in a downward feedback review process:
- Core competencies - do you meet or exceed the competencies of your current role?
- Communication - do you liaise effectively with your manager and teammates?
- Interpersonal - do you possess strong soft skills and exhibit great teamwork?
- Alignment - are you able to demonstrate you understand company values?
- Motivation - do you appear engaged in your work and have a great work ethic?
- Efficiency - do you meet deadlines and exceed expectations?
- Leadership - are you a good role model to your direct reports?
- Quality of work - is your manager consistently satisfied with your output?
How Does Downward Feedback Fit into 360-degree Feedback?
360-degree feedback is a more holistic way of collecting and distributing feedback. Rather than coming from one person (a manager), it comes from multiple sources, such as peers, direct reports, superiors, customers, and business partners.
“When we feedback upward, downward or right and left – our managers, team members, colleagues, and business partners – we have great opportunities to bring up authenticity, build safety, offer chances for real improvement and share something about ourselves the other party doesn’t know yet.
When the main aim of the feedback is to express positive appreciation, we have plenty of room to develop all of these. When the main aim of the feedback is to communicate that something requires improvement, we also have plenty of room for relationship building. Feedbacking creates a meaningful place to meet the other party – and acting on the feedback we receive is an even greater place to build our working relationships.” - Mila Trezza, Founder of Coaching Lawyers.
360-degree reviews are an important way to supplement downward feedback loops. Although employees still receive top-down guidance, other stakeholders offer additional context.
For example: if a manager suggests their direct report needs to work on their business communication skills, the 360-degree feedback process can provide more insight into how others perceive their communication. Is this a mismatch between the employee and their boss, or do other people also find them difficult to approach?
The answers to these questions help employees to develop a plan to improve their communication skills. And when they do eventually communicate better, their boss will be able to see the positive impact on the team.
The benefits of top-down (downward feedback)
There are some clear advantages to downward feedback, which you shouldn't dismiss even when adjusting your review culture.
When employees know what their managers want and expect, aligning their goals and deliverables is easier, ensuring they're on the same page.
Quality of Work Improvements
When a manager provides specific and actionable feedback, it can help employees avoid making the same mistakes in the future. If they're acting in a mentor capacity, the mentee can benefit from their years of experience.
New Hire Immersion
Downward feedback goes beyond specific roles and can help immerse new recruits in company culture if they've recently joined the team. Knowing what the organization's values are and how they want employees to represent the company can guide behavior accordingly.
The desire for praise develops in childhood when we receive positive feedback from parents, teachers, or sports coaches. And some employees continue to seek out this type of reinforcement in the workplace, with 37% of employees preferring to receive praise in public. Downward feedback can be a real ego boost for employees who love getting kudos from the boss.
Psychologists explain that praise or compliments activate the brain's ventral striatum and ventral medial prefrontal cortex. This type of "social reward" is just as thrilling to the brain as receiving a financial reward!
7 Tips for delivering better downward feedback
If top-down feedback feels the right fit for your organization, follow these 7 tips to make the most of it.
1. Be approachable
Even though this is a one-way stream, direct reports must know they can get in touch if they need to gain extra clarity on a point.
2. Use a feedback structure
A proper feedback model helps managers to deliver clear, concise, and actionable feedback. No one likes to hear negative or constructive feedback, so start with what they're doing well to put the criticism that follows into perspective. Next, provide examples of where they could improve. Finally, end on a positive note with what they should continue doing.
3. Look beyond individual performance
Ensure your feedback encompasses the bigger picture. Instead of zoning in on specific incidents or projects, feedback should contribute to the employee's overall growth and development. Refer to role card competencies and your company's core values to ensure alignment.
4. Solicit feedback about the feedback
Ask direct reports if there are any areas where they would like more feedback. This will give you a chance to focus on the areas that are most important to them. 89% of HR leaders agree that continuous peer feedback produces successful outcomes, yet 41.8% of companies solicit feedback from employees annually or less frequently.
5. Be aware of your tone
Try to avoid coming across as negative, condescending or judgmental. Use helpful positive and negative feedback phrases to get your points across. A positive, constructive tone will help ensure the message is received as intended.
6. Stick to a regular feedback schedule
A regular schedule ensures that feedback is timely and there are no surprises. Unfortunately, annual reviews are usually too infrequent. Research reveals that as many as 60% of employees prefer weekly or even daily feedback.
7. Follow up
Arrange a time to check in and see how the employees are progressing; this will show that you're committed to helping them improve and value their development.
Downward feedback template you can use
In this template, the manager will consider the questions on the left before providing feedback on employee performance in the right-hand column. They'll also have the chance to give an overall summary and set the next performance appraisal date. Feel free to download and tailor the template to your needs:
Why is downward feedback alone not enough?
There are limitations for leaders who rely solely on top-down feedback as they’re missing out on vital learning opportunities both for employees and the employer.
The top limitations of downward feedback in your company culture include:
The Primacy Effect
The primacy effect is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency of people to remember information presented at the beginning rather than what follows. The bottom line is that first impressions count! Negative bias can creep into their performance evaluation for employees who haven't gotten off to a great start. Nothing will ever be good enough for their superior, even if they've made significant improvements. Employees can feel demotivated and undervalued when this is the only type of feedback received.
The Halo Effect
The halo effect appears when a positive quality can influence your overall opinion of someone. For example, suppose your boss acknowledges their employee is a great communicator. In that case, they're more likely to believe they also have strong leadership skills, even if there's no evidence to support this. In contrast, inviting input from peers ensures you get varied and honest feedback. As a result, your reports receive a more well-rounded overview.
The Recency Effect
If employee feedback only occurs once a year, chances are that the manager will only remember recent behavior, incidents, or tasks worked on. In addition, the recency effect means employees may not get a complete picture of their performance — amazing achievements from six months ago may be forgotten.
So, while downward communication has its place, it's important to supplement it with other types of feedback. Your best options?
Peer feedback is a type of multi-source feedback received from people who work with you regularly. This can be informal feedback, like asking a colleague for their opinion on a presentation you're giving, or it can be more formal feedback, like taking part in a 360-degree survey. Either way, it increases the validity of any downward feedback received from a manager. It also adds a valuable perspective from people who work alongside you.
Upward feedback is when employees give feedback to their managers. It's the mirror image of downward feedback, but it's just as important. Upward communication can help managers understand how their employees feel, what they need from their leaders, and how they can improve their management style. Sending out regular Pulse surveys is a great way to collect upward feedback.
"Have you ever worked in an environment where feedback only goes one way i.e., downwards from leaders to employees, and not the other way around? Most of us have. It's rare for leaders to actively solicit feedback.
People find it difficult to give feedback upwards to people in authority, and as a result, CEOs don't get to hear about the impact they are having on others. They live in a bubble where strengths get overplayed, and weaknesses get ignored." - Mark Farrer-Brown, Coach, Founder and CEO of Fit to Lead.
Create a 360 feedback culture that drives growth and performance
Downward feedback is integral to a 360-degree review cycle, but it's rarely useful as a standalone appraisal system.
If you want to create a 360 feedback culture to drive growth and performance in your organization, you need to ensure you're incorporating all types of feedback. Here's how:
- Make it a two-way street: As we've seen, downward feedback is only one part of the equation. To create a well-rounded feedback culture, you need to ensure employees also receive feedback from their peers and managers.
- Make it actionable: Feedback is only helpful if it leads to positive change. When employees receive downward feedback, make sure they know what they need to do to improve. This could be as simple as setting specific goals or attending training courses.
- Encourage open communication: One of the biggest challenges with downward feedback is getting employees to listen to it actively. Employees who feel like they can't speak openly about their performance will likely tune out any feedback they receive. Encourage open communication by creating a safe and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.
The easiest way to take action on all the above points is to leverage the power of Zavvy's 360 feedback software. This will give you a clear system focused on clarity, meaningful growth, and radically reduced bias.
You'll handpick and combine your preferred 360 feedback programs, including upward, downward, peer feedback, and self-evaluation reviews, all to foster a positive and nurturing organizational culture.
As a result, your team will learn from their failures and celebrate their successes!
Set the wheels in motion today by arranging a live demo of Zavvy's 360 degree feedback software.