How leaders can create a culture of candor and upward feedback: advice from 3 TalentGrow Show podcast guests

How leaders can create a culture of candor and upward feedback advice from 3 TalentGrow Show podcast guests by Halelly Azulay

The topic of feedback comes up in many of my conversations with my own clients, and it has also been a topic of conversation on my podcast, the TalentGrow Show. We frequently talk about how to give feedback, but are you also encouraging upward feedback from those whom you lead and manage? In this blog post, three podcast guests share some concerns about why you might not be getting all the feedback you need and actionable advice for changing that reality to ensure you are preventing blind-spots and creating a culture of candor and upward feedback.

Ask yourself these three questions - Jeff Annello, Ep037

“Many leaders complain that they “wish that everybody in the room would speak up, or “I really feel like I’m only hearing from a couple of people”,” says Jeff Annello, co-author of the popular Farnam Street blog, on episode 37. “But they haven’t stepped back to ask themselves, “What am I doing to encourage that to happen?” You can’t just complain about it.”

Then, once you begin actively asking for and receiving feedback, Annello suggests you ask yourself, “am I actually going to use it? Will I take it seriously? Or am I just going to do what I was going to do anyway?” Annello suggests that “you’re probably a leader because you’ve had strong opinions on things and you’ve been very successful at them, but the further you get up [the chain of command], you have to start taking your own opinions and thoughts a little less seriously and start pushing in the other direction to think about what other people are thinking.” Ask yourself regularly, “what are the other people feeling and thinking about this and how do I take that seriously?”

I (Halelly) wrote a blog post about CEO disease, a term coined by Daniel Goleman, which suggests that the higher up leaders rise in the chain of command, the more that they tend to be surrounded by yes-men and -women. And they don’t get the information that they need to ensure they avoid mistakes. Because everybody around them, instead of saying, “Have you considered this or this might not work because of that,” are just nodding their head and allowing the leader to potentially march right off a cliff, confidently.

Annello agrees, and suggests you ask yourself a third question: “What [am I] actually going to do to solve this problem? How [am I] going to keep yes-men from surrounding [me]?” Are you able to get over your ego in such a way that you’ll have people around you who frequently do not agree with you and who frequently come up with opinions that you would not have come up with and you don’t always think are a good idea at first glance? This is a thinking error called ‘First Conclusion Bias’.”

Be a leader who nurtures courageous followers - Ira Chaleff, Ep015

I asked author, speaker, workshop presenter and innovative thinker Ira Chaleff about this, too, on episode 15: How do you make sure that you’re leading courageous followers – the kind who speak up and speak truth to power instead of simply towing the line? What can you do as a leader in an organization to help nip this problem in the bud?

Chaleff, who studies and writes about the beneficial use of power between those who are leading and those who are following a leader, agreed that it’s a very important question.

“All managers and people in formal leadership roles like to think that they create an environment in which people will be candid with them and will push back with creative ideas, etc. Unfortunately, for two reasons, that isn’t always true.”

“[First], each of us come with our own family of origin and early childhood upbringing and different cultures that we come from – ethnic cultures, [gender cultures, etc.], with different rules and values and behavior. So even though we, as the manager, might think we’re creating a very safe environment, it doesn’t necessarily translate that way to the people we’re working with. So we have to work harder than we think we might in order to genuinely get people to feel we really mean it, we really want them to speak up and we’ll value that.”

“The second piece is that unfortunately, we all have blind spots. And we’re not always aware of the kind of micro-messages that we send out that discourage candid feedback and input. So, in [my book] The Courageous Follower, I’ve added a chapter on the courage to listen to followers. It walks leaders through a lot of the hidden pitfalls and ways that they can proactively create the culture that will genuinely support that kind of candor. It’s not easy. As we know, trust can be easily lost, to inadvertent missteps. So this requires some thought, some reading, some practice, some coaching, even, in order to do it well.”

[Learn about the idea of radical transparency on this podcast episode with Susan Scott.]

Chaleff shares a great story to illustrate his point. Have you been guilty of this?

“A wonderful CEO of a very vibrant company came back from a three-day retreat with her six top senior executives, and there was a meeting with her, about 50 or 60 mid-level managers, and before we started the meeting, she said, “Do you mind if I have a few minutes, just brief the management team on what transpired in our three-day retreat?” And I said, “Of course not.” So she went and she started to sell the ideas that they had come up with and how they were going to change this and that and the other thing, and the product line and the target customer base and … after about 10 or 12 minutes of this passionate selling of her ideas, she asked, “Does anybody have any problem with that?” Well, you see she created this environment, unintentionally, where you would be such a damp mop on her enthusiasm that nobody would speak up. It took me two hours, with very carefully designed group processes, to undo that. Now, imagine the difference if she had instead come in and said, “You know, we had this wonderful retreat. Here were the four key ideas that emerged from this that we’re giving serious consideration to. Before we do that, we really need your input to see are we missing anything? Do we have blind spots? Are there ramifications in the system that we haven’t thought about?” And just listen to the difference there, how people would be willing to put in their candid viewpoints, and then the CEO and her senior team can make really good decisions.”

Are you nurturing courageous followers?

Assess and overcome your blind spots by seeking feedback continuously, from multiple sources, and triangulating it – Larry Gioia, Ep004

Larry Gioia, IT Consultant and Advisor with PwC, a serial entrepreneur who has several side businesses and an active volunteer and community builder, suggested on episode 4 that we need to assess what our ‘blind spots’ are.

First, before you get upward feedback, you should “ask your manager for some feedback. Not “Praise me for the great things I’m doing,” but “tell me what I should be doing differently. Tell me one thing I should really work on.”

[Read Asking your boss for feedback? Here are some Dos and Don'ts to keep in mind for tips on how to ask for feedback.]

Then, Gioia continues, “ask for feedback from someone that you manage daily.” Now that you have multiple points of input, “reflect on that feedback and figure out what it is that you can triangulate. Maybe you heard the same thing twice, which you should really act on, or maybe there’s two separate things that you heard from each one of those audiences. Then make change immediately."

“Continue to evolve your own style based on that feedback and adjust. And continue to ask for feedback all the time.”

[Make sure you have the right mindset for feedback.]


You want to ensure you avoid making mistakes by asking for feedback in a way that encourages people to give it. Then you must act on that feedback to ensure people get the message that you’re serious about getting and using feedback. Nurture your ‘followers’ to be courageous by making it safe to give candid upward feedback. And finally, check yourself by getting multiple points of feedback and triangulating them to avoid blind spots.

Your turn

What’s been your experience with getting (and/or giving) upward feedback? Chime in below in the comments!

Sign up to my free weekly newsletter and get more actionable tips and ideas for making yourself a better leader and a more effective communicator! It’s very short and relevant with quick tips, links, and news about leadership, communication, and self-development. Sign up now!

Also, subscribe to my podcast, The TalentGrow Show, on iTunes to always be the first in the know about new episodes of The TalentGrow Show!

You Might Also Like These Posts:

Do you have the right mindset for effective feedback?

The "STS Formula" for giving positive feedback and appreciation

[Vlog]: 10 conversations every leader should have with every employee