Your boss sucks, so what should you do?

I was recently asked about the ramifications of giving feedback about your boss.  See, at Microsoft, we've become much more serious about gathering feedback and now make peer feedback part of the review process.  And we continue to gather manager feedback as always.  But giving feedback can be tricky and some of the concerns people feel can be justified.  Not seeing eye-to-eye with your immediate manager can make coming to work and performing well very difficult.  Yet, expressing this issue can also be difficult.  It's difficult to give sound advice on the best approach since every situation is different, so instead I will give you two examples of feedback that went badly.  Then give some recommended actions you could take.

As a test manager, I once had a lead reporting to me, and engineers reporting to him.  This lead did a very good job over the course of the years he worked for me.  Then he started having personal issues at home that impacted his ability to come to work regularly.  His team noticed this fairly soon after it started happening.  They made a bad choice at this point.  Instead of coming to me, they decided they would rate him poorly in the feedback tool.  And this wasn't just one or two of them.  They actually collaborated together to do this as a group to "send a message".  And it worked.  The message they sent was that their lead wasn't doing his job and very soon after that I had to demote him.  What went wrong here?  First, everyone is human and even your manager can have issues that make them less than perfect.  If it's for a finite amount of time, you should let it be.  If you aren't comfortable with that, you can bring it up with your skip-level manager once you feel comfortable doing this.  I recommend feeling out how your skip-level is going to react before really opening up.  In the recent questions I received that inspired this post, that's exactly what happened.  The engineer asked me very general questions about what happens to the feedback that is submitted, what I would do with it, how I would interpret it, and if there would be ramifications for the person giving negative feedback about their boss.  This is a great approach.  I didn't ask if it was this engineer that was concerned or a coworker, and the engineer's questions were general enough that knowing the true source didn't really affect my answers.  I hope my answers helped encourage the engineer or the coworker of the engineer to give feedback.

When I was less experienced, I wasn't smart enough to do what this engineer did by asking questions about giving feedback, and it affected my career.  I had a new manager who I initially thought was great.  Over time, he became indecisive, hard to communicate with, and I lost trust in him.  So what did I do?  First I gave him this feedback, but nothing really seemed to change.  So then I, of course, gave him poor feedback through Microsoft's feedback tool, chose to not make it anonymous, and then in addition, sent an email to my skip-level manager (who would get the feedback through the tool).  I figured we had all been at Microsoft long enough and were professional enough that since my feedback was skills-based and not an attack on his personality, it would be constructive and handled well.  When I went to meet with my skip-level, his first words after stating that he got my feedback was that "it wouldn't affect my career".  What?  I never considered that it would so the fact that he had to state this made me very concerned that it now would affect my career.  And sure enough, it did.  Within 6 months, my responsibilities were squeezed to the point that I needed to leave in order to continue my career growth.  Big lesson learned.  Yet this engineer that came to me with the feedback questions already was doing with me what I should have done with my skip-level years ago - found out the reaction before proceeding with the feedback.

So manager-employee relations can be a tricky subject with no straight answers.  There are a few things you can do to make it a better experience than the two I've listed above.

  1. Get a mentor or someone more senior who is not close to your team in org structure and that can listen to your concerns objectively and give you advice based on your specific situation.
  2. Talk to your skip-level manager and understand whether they welcome constructive feedback or not.  Will they make it anonymous?  How do they deliver it to their lead?
  3. If you feel comfortable (and most engineers do not), you can give your feedback directly to your lead.  This will depend on the relationship you currently have with your lead.  Also, where most people managers get trained on how to give constructive feedback, individual engineers do not.  So this could be extra challenging.  Giving feedback that you are not trained in giving, to your lead who determines your performance level, and face-to-face, is the most difficult situation to give direct feedback may be nearly impossible for an engineer.  I'd opt out of this option unless your relationship with your lead is good, you know they want to hear your feedback, and they will objectively listen to it and take action.
  4. Fill out the different feedback methods available to you at your company and try to be objective.  Even if you have negative things to say about your boss, there has to be positive things as well.  Balanced feedback gives you credibility (both will be looked at more carefully and not disregarded as a rant), it may make you feel better when you think about the positives, and it helps you form your thoughts for other times you may need to give feedback.
  5. If you try a bunch of different methods to help get you and your lead on the same page and nothing is working, the last resort would be to consider changing jobs or managers.

So how did I answer the engineer that asked me question about what I do with the feedback?  First, I explained that I value critical thinkers.  I expect people to question what we do, how we do it, and help us get better as an engineering team.  Although typically people think about this in terms of engineering processes and tools, it applies to people and managers as well.  You should critique you manager and describe what you find and how that person can become a better people manager.  I value that from the people in my team at all levels.  Secondly, many times I have a gut feel about my direct reports - something I know isn't quite on track but I can't describe it well.  Many times, I get well written feedback that describes the same characteristic in a way that fits perfectly with what I was seeing; I just couldn't find the right terminology to describe it.  Finally, feedback is more impactful with specific examples.  Yet, you can't keep it anonymous if you use the specific examples from the engineer giving the feedback (because they probably saw the issue in a situation with their lead that I as a manager wouldn't be witness to).  But by getting the feedback early and being firm about keeping it anonymous, it gives me good information so I can watch other situations and find places where I am witness to the same behavior.  Giving feedback to my leads is much more powerful when I can state a specific example that I was involved in with them.  Therefore I don't need to use the example from the engineer, although without it, I may not have ever watched out for a similar one.

Everybody has places where they can improve and delivering the right message to people managers can make them better and make the team happier.  I never like telling people to just "keep doing what you are doing".  There is always some place where they can make improvements or leverage their strengths in a whole new way.  So don't give up on giving feedback, especially about your boss.  In a Test or Quality Assurance organization, I like to compare it to writing a defect report.  In a defect report, you describe the situation where you saw the problem, what the problem was, and what your expectations were.  Now instead of it being about a feature in a product, it's about the skills of a leader.

If you and your manager don't get along, don't give up hope.  I've had a ton of managers throughout my career at Microsoft and besides one or two, the rest have been awesome managers, including my current boss.  I hope my discussion of this topic helps you understand your options about giving feedback on your boss.