Crowdsourcing Management Reviews for Better Management

The January-February issue of Harvard Business Review features a series of short articles that each present an "audacious idea." Our piece in that series — "Crowdsource Management Reviews — And Make Them Public, Too" asks what you would do if your employees were assessing their bosses online and making their collective assessments public.

Here's the situation we described: A group of employees has set up an independent website where all employees can use online social collaboration tools to assess their bosses on eight key managerial dimensions — such as delegation, communication, clarity of direction, and the like — taken from your company's basic course on management. All the individuals' ratings for a boss are aggregated into a single rating for each dimension. Individual comments are aggregated into a single review — like a wiki, which is a single document composed by multiple authors. If an individual employee disagrees with the collective assessment, there is a way to record his or her dissent anonymously.

We believe employees are increasingly likely to set up such review sites themselves. Why? In general, because of people's obvious interest in their bosses — look at all the online commentary on that subject today — and specifically because of the disparity in many organizations between what the firm says, explicitly or implicitly, it expects of managers, and the often mediocre (or worse) bosses it actually condones. As such sites appear, companies will be forced to answer the question we asked above: What would you do?

In the article, we suggested that crowdsourcing management reviews may actually present an opportunity to improve the practice of management. But limited space forced us to exclude an important aspect of our argument — how and why this approach can actually provide this significant benefit.

For crowdsourcing to improve the practice of management, a company must proactively take two crucial preliminary steps: It must define publicly what it considers "good management." And it must train both bosses and direct reports in how to deliver and receive constructive feedback.

Good management. Unless there is mutual agreement among all concerned about the standards a manager must meet to be considered "good," this approach will surely fail. The company must tell everyone, "Here's what we expect from managers." By implication, then, the company is telling all employees what they can expect from their bosses. It is saying, in effect, "You have a right to competent management, and here's how we define competence."

Once employees know what they have a right to expect (and not expect, by the way), those expectations will shape and inform the behavior of their bosses because direct reports will expect their bosses to satisfy those expectations every day in all they do. This environment of expectation and the discussions it will generate will create the real-time feedback bosses need to improve.

Crowdsourcing would improve on current methods of management development, which are well-intentioned but often not as effective as they could be, because crowdsourcing would make the manager's everyday work the venue where real learning occurs. The inherent weakness of most current methods is that "learning" and "doing" are separated. Typically, development — through courses, reading, case discussions, simulations, traditional management appraisals, even 360 reviews and role-playing — occur away from the work itself. These methods leave to the manager the critical task of applying back on the job any lessons learned. We all know that real learning occurs best when feedback is ongoing and real-time. None of those methods is able to apply that principle. A direct consequence is the pervasive "knowing-doing gap" we see in the work of too many bosses.

Will this be easy? Of course not. There are significant potential pitfalls, as we point out in the article, such as employees' use of the review to "get even"; bosses who try to punish critical employees; lack of a clear and expeditious process for settling disagreements; unfair assessments, especially of minority bosses; and a misguided focus on judgment and evaluation in the reviews rather than assessment and development.

Constructive feedback. Probably the greatest potential pitfall, however, is people's common inability to give and receive negative feedback constructively. For the crowdsourcing of management reviews to work, all the stakeholders will need training that develops not only critical skills and best practices in this area but also sets clear norms and values that all involved are expected to observe. For example, it must be clear that personal attacks by employees or retribution by a boss will not be tolerated and that such behavior will invite serious sanctions.

Many boss-employee relationships now suffer from misaligned or unspoken expectations that produce a lack of trust, which limits the effectiveness of both parties. Conversations about the boss's actions or decisions often don't occur at all, and when they do they're seldom explicit and only rarely based on a common understanding of what bosses should do. Wouldn't these relationships be more productive if there were frequent, explicit discussions based on a clear and common set of expectations?

With the greater transparency produced by such real-time discussions will ultimately come greater trust, a higher level of managerial performance in general, and ultimately, as a direct result, better organizational performance.

We believe that crowdsourcing of management reviews is coming, like it or not. The necessary tools are widely available. People have strong feelings about their bosses. And the world is inexorably moving to greater transparency. But the potential benefits we see in crowdsourcing will come only if companies shape this opportunity in the positive ways we've described.

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