Giving Downward Feedback? Ease the Power Dynamic.

Home » Feedback Tips Weekly » Giving Downward Feedback? Ease the Power Dynamic.

Downward feedback typically refers to feedback given by a manager to their direct report. It can also refer to any feedback given by a more senior employee to a junior employee.

If I facilitate a 60-minute discussion about feedback, at least one participant, usually a more junior colleague, will bring up the role of power and hierarchy. On the rare occasion that someone doesn’t, the vibe of it inhabits the room.

Those early in their career tend to be afraid to seek feedback and ask questions about the feedback they receive; they fear doing so could make others think they are weak or incapable. We will address this in a separate post, but if this resonates with you, How to Ask for Feedback may be a good starting point.

People managers I’ve worked with tend to forget about this power dynamic, except new people managers who are always astutely aware and wondering how to effectively leverage their sensitivity rather than be frozen by it. While there’s plenty of overlap between the advice I share with new and more seasoned colleagues, here are the points that resonate most with each group.

Using power sensitivity in feedback communication

Here’s what I recommend for new people managers.

  1. Remember that your sensitivity is a strength. Keep it close. Your ability to empathize with your direct reports will allow you to deliver better feedback and to deliver feedback better.
  2. Schedule a call with your team with the purpose of talking about feedback. This can put everybody at ease, ensure you all speak a shared language, and psychologically prime yourself and your team to make feedback a regular part of your conversations. I cover how to do this (and why) in How to Build an Effective Feedback Culture.
  3. Leverage the power of positive feedback. As we covered in Giving Feedback to New Teammates, your new direct reports often need to know what they are doing well as much (and often more) than where they need to improve. Steady, specific positive feedback can also allow your direct report to take your negative feedback more seriously because they will know you see many dimensions of their performance.

Regaining power sensitivity in feedback communication

Here’s what I recommend for more seasoned people managers.

  1. Before delivering feedback, bring awareness to the power dynamic. This momentary pause can help ensure you deliver feedback with the correct dose of sensitivity and candor.
  2. Empathy flip. If you are a VP delivering feedback to a far more junior colleague, imagine being in their shoes. What fears did you have at that stage in your career? What fears may they have based on today’s new environment (perhaps an environment where many layoffs are happening)? How would you want feedback to be delivered in such an environment?
  3. Seek clarity when giving feedback. Do not expect or assume this behavior from your junior colleague. If they exhibit this behavior, that’s fantastic, but consider it your responsibility. Ask if they understand what you mean, if it would be helpful to share the feedback differently, and if they have any questions about it.


Continue reading

  1. Narrative Fallacy in Feedback
  2. Giving Feedback as Directive vs. Guide