The benefits of open, upward feedback are well-documented. When employees feel that their voice matters, they are more likely to be engaged and productive, and rates of turnover and absenteeism decrease.

Organisations are also able to better able respond quickly to threats and opportunities because there is more shared information on which to make decisions.

However, ensuring open and truthful upward communication remains a serious problem in most organisations.  Which begs the question: as a leader, how open are you really to feedback from your team?

A theme that I keep seeing is that leaders think that they are much more approachable and receptive to feedback than they really are.

Time and again, studies show a huge gulf between how leaders perceive their approachability and receptiveness to feedback and what their team members think. In one study, this gap was found to be as much as 60%.

This gulf creates a huge risk, because it can cause leaders to think “no news is good news” when the opposite may be true. It also indicates that leaders are more likely to think that they are seeing the whole picture, and that they are being told everything that they need to know, when this is unlikely to be the case.

This risk can be compounded by the inclination of many employees to ingratiate themselves with leaders and only share affirming or positive news rather than tell the truth. Leaders who fail to recognise that sending good news up, and staying silent about bad news, can be a natural response for employees who wish to get ahead will miss key insights if they don’t ask better questions and create opportunities for flow of both good and bad news.

When leaders only hear good news, or are surrounded by ‘yes-sayers’, they are also more inclined to believe that there is only one point of view – their own. When leaders are insulated from critical feedback, they are more likely to lean into their self-efficacy bias and have exaggerated confidence in their own ability. This can make it even less likely that they will seek or be receptive to anything other than positive feedback and may be more inclined to believe that any critical feedback is inaccurate or unfounded.

So how do make sure that you will receive critical feedback?

Creating & maintaining the conditions that make it more likely that employees will speak up is an ongoing practice.

Leadership teams can start by reflecting on whether they have received criticisms about the decisions they are taking. Are people coming forward to express their concerns? What is the ratio of positive to critical feedback being received? Are they only hearing positive news?

Building team psychological safety so that people feel safer to speak up is also critical. This should be measured. Staff surveys regarding psychological safety and the extent to which employees trust their leaders, feel comfortable to speak up, and believe that their leaders are receptive to listening should be undertaken periodically with results provided to the Board. If this is not already occurring, the Board should be asking for it as part of proactive governance & risk mitigation.

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