The difference between downstream and upstream feedback

Photo by Jonas B


I wrote in the past about the difficulties of giving positive feedback and praise . I do believe that positive feedback and noticing employees are very important concepts that are not practiced enough. There a tendency to deal only with the negative (hopefully, constructive) feedback, neglecting the discussion of what went well and how can we improve and leverage from our strengths.

However, this is especially true for downstream feedback. That is to say, as a manager or team member giving feedback to your employees or peers. When we talk about the upstream feedback, feedback coming from the employees up to the manager, the tendency is to focus on the good things, while many of the bad things disappear. I came across this paragraph in Guy Kawasaki’s book, Reality Check:

Good news. The competition, customers, governments and schmexperts (shmucks + experts) constantly assault a company. Because of this barrage, good news is attractive – like an addictive, illegal, and dangerous drug. It makes you crave more good news, and you refuse to communicate bad news up the chain of command. Ultimately, it may even make you refuse to hear bad news at all. How many commanders-in-chief of armies has this phenomenon brought down over the course of history?

Now, while Kawasaki’s quote focuses on bad news in general, it is just as valid for negative (constructive) feedback coming up from employees. How many employees do you know will conscientiously, wholeheartedly, criticize their manager? Or even tell him when he is wrong or mistreating someone or missing a crucial fact? Not enough. Not because they don’t think about it or talk about it behind the managers back or feel frustrated about it. Because of culture and the action of the manager when somebody does it and of course, conventional wisdom.

As managers we need to be aware of that fact. The problem is that the minute we become managers, we fall prey to the toxic tandem. We actually know and understand less about our employees the higher we are. So while dealing with downstream feedback, we need to focus on the emphasizing the positive sides and focusing on strengths, when dealing with the upstream side, we need to demand employees to come up and tell us we are wrong, what we are missing and how we can improve. And it is important to encourage, notice, and recognize it when it happens as well as to take in with humility.

The employees could be wrong. They might not see the entire picture or understand what you as a manger understand. They might get the facts wrong. However, I can guarantee one thing. You will understand their feelings better and while we can argue with facts, we cannot argue with individual feelings. And we cannot deal with feelings, until they are out there and we recognized them.

What do you get out of the upstream of information coming from your employees? Is it only praises and good news?


3 Responses to “The difference between downstream and upstream feedback”

  1. Tweets that mention The difference between downstream and upstream feedback « The Comparative Advantage -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Elad Sherf, Elad Sherf. Elad Sherf said: New Blog Post: The difference between downstream and upstream feedback […]

  2. Mark Welch Says:

    How true this is. Thanks for providing your link from the other site. There needs to be major culture change – #1 being driving out fear like Deming discussed. The manager who will listen to constructive criticism from subordinates is a rare breed – certainly “bigger” than most. I’m 51 years old and in my working years I can think of maybe 1 or 2 of the many managers I’ve had that I THOUGHT would receive constructive criticism well. But let’s face it… Who is going to even risk their boss getting angry – the one person most likely to fire him/her?

  3. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Mark,
    You are absolutely right and I think your experience and way of thinking does represent what is going on out there. This is why it is even more important to change it. And both managers and subordinates should be active about breaking it. We need to remember that the number one job of a manager is to make his employees excel and the number one job of an employee is to make is boss look good (in the actual result oriented meaning, not just for the sake of looking good). Once each of these side will start acting this way, communication, productivity, efficiency innovation and results will follow.
    Thank you very much for the comment, hope to see you again soon.

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