the real reason your team isn’t telling you what they think

Managers often say that they want candid input from their teams – but then act in ways that virtually ensure they won’t get it. That’s bad for you as a manager, because it means that you might not hear about problems in time to easily fix them, won’t get input that could help you make better decisions, and could even lead to trouble retaining your best people.

The tricky thing about this, though, is that it can be hard to recognize how you’re creating this dynamic. So here are some of the most common ways that managers inadvertently discourage candor on their team – as well as how you can steer clear of these traps.

1. You say you want candor but then get defensive or punish the messenger. Ever worked for someone who paid lots of lip service to the idea that all opinions were welcome and appeared to encourage dissent, only to lash out at people who tried speaking up? If so, you probably saw what happened: People quickly learn to ignore the lofty talk about candor and instead keep their opinions to themselves. Most people will pay less attention to what you say than to what you do – so how you react when someone disagrees or pushes back on your ideas will have a huge impact on whether people continue to share their real thoughts with you or not.

2. You take feedback well, but you favor team members who always agree with you.> This one is a little more subtle than #1, but people will pick up on it over time: You might take feedback beautifully, even express genuine appreciation for it. But if you have a pattern of favoring the yes-men on your team – giving them more of your time, attention, and approval and maybe even the best assignments (because they don’t challenge you and thus are easier to work with), you’re signaling that if people want to advance under your leadership, they need to spout the party line.

3. You don’t model candor yourself. If your team never sees you take risks with your own boss – for instance, you never push back on priorities or strategies even when your team knows you disagree – they’re likely to take their cues from you. On the other hand, if they see that you’re willing to advocate a point of view even when it’s not in sync with your own boss’s, they’ll be more likely to trust that you’ll try to resolve issues that they themselves speak up about.

4. You assume that not hearing disagreement means that people agree with you. If you propose an idea at a meeting and ask for people’s thoughts and hear nothing but a positive (or neutral) response, don’t be quick to assume that everyone’s on board. Some people may have reservations that they won’t share unless you go out of your way to draw them out. Try saying things like:

  • “What are the downsides/challenges with this?”
  • “If you had to poke holes in this, what would you say?”
  • “If this ended up not working, why do you think that would be?”
  • “I’m not 100% sold that this is the way to go, so would really like to hear other perspectives on it.”

If you haven’t deliberately created an environment that welcomes candor and makes it safe for people to speak freely, you can’t assume that they are. Spend some time drawing people out, reward them for voicing difficult opinions (with sincere gratitude and public praise for pushing back, even if you ultimately don’t agree), and you’re more likely to hear what your team really thinks about things.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonEMoose*

    Great article! Maybe I’m overly cynical, but the more someone tells me they want candor and honest feedback, the less I think they actually do want that.

    Demonstrate to me that you want candor and feedback by hearing people out, not punishing those who disagree (but do maintain the expectation that disagreement will be expressed respectfully), and give people time to consider when the issue is complex. Do that, and I’m much more likely to be honest with you.

    But with most managers I’ve had, I’ve learned that the safest approach is to smile and nod. So that tends to be my default until a manager demonstrates otherwise.

    1. Bwmn*

      I think this is where point #2 really comes into play – even if a manager doesn’t get defensive or angry with criticism/push back, if at the end of the day the yes-men are perceived as the ones succeeding, that’s all that will stick with people.

      My very bad boss who could have filled pages of AAM, was a very shouty, yelly, aggressive person – but she also made it very clear that just telling her what she wanted to hear pissed her off. Unfortunately her preferred style of communication was with both parties yelling, but that aside it really did foster an environment where at least you knew she wanted to know what you were thinking.

      If you did agree with her, she would challenge you to thoughtfully answer why. Often in that explanation of hearing you say, “I do think contacting Y about X project is a great idea because it will also help shine a larger light on Z project being released next month” – she’d respond with “Oh, I’d forgotten about Z, we’re actually looking to keep that more quiet so we should probably rethink Y”.

      While her communication style in general was terrible, the give and take did emphasize the point that agreeing or disagreeing with her wasn’t as important as clearly presenting your views and being able to tease out the best way to go forward.

    2. OriginalYup*

      I share your suspicion because it’s one of those “show, don’t tell” scenarios. People who actually do want candor and honest feedback use lots of different words and behaviors to facilitate it. But in my experience, people who only say “feedback” or only say “honesty” or whatever pet phrase they have, don’t really know what candid feedback looks like. They’re parroting the one thing over and over but have no vocabulary or skill set to really see it through.

      It’s the equivalent of organizations that say “we offer great work/life balance” or “we have an excellent benefits package” in job interviews. Please explain to me exactly what you’re offering, and I’ll decide for myself how great they are. Instead of sitting me down and telling me you want candid feedback, listen to what I’m already saying to you every day.

  2. some1*

    And some bad managers say they want candid feedback because they know they should, or they know the org/their boss values that, and don’t want to admit that in reality they don’t want feedback or their decisions questioned in any way.

    1. Artemesia*

      Oh absolutely. Every manager knows they SHOULD want candid feedback but employees look to see what the winning play is. I have had both kinds of bosses. They all SAY they want candor, but you watch what they do with it. The inept but benign bosses just get defensive and then you know. But the evil monsters punish people for it.

    2. Chrissi*

      That’s my boss to a tee! She asks for feedback in the most insincere way, and is obviously just mentally checking that box off of her list of “things I have to ask to be considered a good boss by my superiors”.

        1. Retail Lifer*

          Yeah, we have an “open door policy.” When you walk through that “open door” you’re told it’s not their issue to deal with or that you’re mistaken and it’s not really a problem.

          1. Artemesia*

            So true. A boss with a genuine ‘open door’ policy actually strolls around the place from time to time and engages each employee briefly i.e. makes it clear that s/he is accessible.

    3. Jennifer*

      That sums it up: they have to make a token show of wanting it but actually don’t.
      Or alternately, just because we asked your opinion doesn’t mean we’re actually going to do anything about that feedback.

  3. JMegan*

    Just want to send a shout out here to the manager in my first professional job, because he was awesome at this part. He asked for feedback – both positive and critical – and was genuinely happy to receive it, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it. He also thinks I was an awesome employee, because I wasn’t afraid to provide critical feedback when required.

    He wasn’t perfect, but he did lots of things right, and I’d go back to work for him in a second if that were an option!

  4. Chrissi*

    At our annual divisional meeting, if we didn’t hit our targets (which used to never happen and now happens every year), the boss and the boss’s boss ask us “what went wrong”? And the response is just crickets. Because we’ve all learned by now that if you bring anything up, the reaction is essentially “no, not a good enough answer, you guys just need to work harder”.

    We all know what went wrong – the targets are way too difficult to achieve, we’re being asked to do more complex work and a greater amount of work w/ no additional resources in the same amount of time, and everyone is completely burnt out. Our peers in other regions (geographically) are having the exact same problems, so we’re pretty sure it’s a top-down problem. There probably are some things we could work on, but no one will come out and say it because they don’t want to be shot down and they also don’t want to have to admit to any shortcomings in front of their coworkers.

  5. AthenaC*

    Oh my – I just had a conversation with my boss yesterday in which I told him that I would not be the one to give him behavioral feedback. We have a small office and we work together enough that I have noticed changes in the quality of his work when he is upset.

    From where I’m sitting, my best bet is to trust that simply his attention to whatever aspect of his professional self he wants to change is enough; I’m looking out for myself by declining to be the messenger for anything else he may or may not want to hear.

    1. qtipqueen*


      I had a boss who would always solicit feedback very sincerely, but none of the team’s feedback ever went anywhere. I kind of assumed that her boss had something to do with that, but it is very disheartening to come up with a great idea or great feedback, but then know in the end, it does not ever really matter.

      1. Artemesia*

        Something as simple as telling people ‘I love the idea but it got vetoed above me because of resource issues — we’ll need to see if we can come at it another way.’ would make such a big difference. This was the death of quality circles — all that wheel spinning and then no response from management.

      2. Jennifer*

        Yeah, we have someone who roadblocks everything unless it’s her idea, so never mind.

    2. Her much reading hath made her mad*

      So very much this. I think that’s the most discouraging of all of the responses. It’s one thing if they come back and tell you why they can’t act on your feedback, but that so seldom happens. And if you’ve put a lot of time and thought into crafting good feedback only to get crickets, it’s so disheartening.

    3. Elysian*

      So true! Even if the thing you do is come back at some later point and say “We looked in [your suggestion] but because [reason] it just doesn’t look like its going to work right now. It was a good idea, though, and we appreciated hearing it!” If its radio silence, you assume nothing has been done and no one cared.

    4. PontoonPirate*

      Yes. It’s great that my boss doesn’t punish people for feedback or get defensive, but nothing we say really matters either. He won’t push to change anything that should be changed (or push in a very milquetoast manner if he does). And if he did push harder, we never here about it, and the optics are just as damaging.

    5. Sharon*


      I’ve seen this most often in the case of upper management telling us that they want and value feedback or suggestions on how the company can be more efficient/profitable/whatever. And then we we submit suggestions up through the management chain, someone in the middle tiers shoots it all down. I’ve noticed that the executive teams seem puzzled at apparent apathy by the workers and don’t seem to realize there is a communication blockade in between.

      Just for a recent example, our executive director recently put us all through product management training which must have cost a pretty penny. At the beginning and end of the session he came and gave a talk to us and said very clearly that he wants us all to come up with bold and innovative ideas – none too large, none too small – and that it was up to us to drive the company in new directions. After a few days thought, I submitted a suggestion through my manager that we should train/hire some actual project managers to run our projects (because currently nobody does and we’re always launching new software before it even has management approval!). The idea got shot down as being too large to implement but I don’t think it even got to him.

  6. NickelandDime*

    If your employees don’t feel you’re being honest with them about things such as: the status of the company; work project priorities; an employee’s chances of advancement and making more money; and upcoming organization changes, no they aren’t going to be honest with you. I might be honest with you during the exit interview.


  7. Dr. Doll*

    I wish I remembered the article I read just a couple of days ago, that made me stick a card to the wall with a question: “How will I know if I’m wrong?” …as a reminder to actively seek out data that speaks to problems and weaknesses, and not to be lulled by data that confirms correctness.

    The drawback is, this takes time.

  8. Bee Eye LL*

    #1 reminds me of my last job where the manager actually argued with me in the exit interview. He asked the standard stuff about how they could improve things and so I mentioned a couple of very specific issues and he started defending the company’s position on them. I let it go, shook hands, and left for the last time. Not worth arguing over on my last day.

    1. LadyTL*

      I always have to wonder why do they ask those kind of questions when they don’t actually want to hear the answers? What is the point?

      1. esra*

        I work somewhere now where they don’t want actual, honest answers, they just want to be told they’re right.

        So they get upset when they ask and don’t hear what they want to hear.

        1. Bee Eye LL*

          My favorite exit interview was when they were slated to lay someone off in my department. I found a new job and left before they could make the cut. When the HR lady asked why I was leaving I flat out told her because somebody was about to get fired. I don’t even know why we did the exit interview under those circumstances. They ended up changing their mind after a couple of months and refilled the position. I think they just wanted to not pay the salary for a while.

      2. Bee Eye LL*

        I swear I wasn’t like pounding my fist on the table telling them how much they suck and I hope the building burns down. I wasn’t even overly critical. I just didn’t like the way certain meetings were run because they’d single out people’s mistakes in them. I suggested that such issues be discussed privately and then use the meetings for group training opportunities or something along those lines.

    2. Kat M*

      I once had a former supervisor at an internship angrily call my dorm room at college two weeks after I’d finished my time with them demanding to know why my exit survey was so negative, when nobody ever gave negative answers. I was surprised, because I’d thought I’d given fairly positive responses, but mentioned that I was overwhelmed at the end when given the jobs of two other employees (who held positions I was ineligible to apply for since I lacked a degree) for the last several weeks. He proceeded to berate me on the phone for my incompetence.

  9. aNoN*

    Ughh my employer conducts an annual survey in which they gauge employee satisfaction. If your team does not rank the questions favorably, you end up getting stuck on creating and executing plans on how to improve your group’s scores. This sounds awesome but it ends up being a very painful process of spreadsheet to do do’s in which we all talk about how important our satisfaction is but are weary of additional tasks to improve satisfaction on top of a heavy workload. So we just end up rating our questions favorably to avoid all this. If the company wants my honest feedback, I will give it to them but my feedback is centered on strategy and employee compensation and potential personal growth opportunities.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Either I am missing something here or your employer is. How can employees improve their own satisfaction IF they do not have control over the major pieces that go into being satisfied? “Yes, boss, I will improve my job satisfaction by giving myself a raise, cutting my own workload in half and giving my immediate boss a personality transplant. There. Now I am satisfied.”

  10. James M.*

    I’d like to suggest a subtle addendum to #4: give your team sufficient time to disagree with your plans. All too often the opportunity for discussion is limited to a 20 second call for a yea/nay. Your team might need a little longer to put together a cogent analysis of your Big Idea.

  11. Sascha*

    Along the lines of #1, don’t get emotional when receiving feedback. Or even when asking for feedback. My current manager started crying in a meeting with me and a coworker. He told us to be honest with him about his performance as a manager, and then he started crying because he felt like he had let us down (the meeting was to discuss some workload and morale problems). So this caused my coworker to start crying and she kept trying to reassure him that he was a great manager and was doing wonderfully – which is not true at all. Me and her had just been discussing how we were going to bring up negative feedback to him. She just got caught up in his emotions and didn’t want him to feel bad. There was so much crying going on that I ended the meeting and told everyone we’d reconvene at another time.

      1. Sascha*

        As a person who can be very unemotional and all-business, especially at work…it was painful.

  12. Sara*

    Perhaps this is a corollary to #2, but I think that when the boss decides to go first when it’s time to give feedback, it makes it much, much harder to give conflicting feedback. My boss (who I like as a person but I feel doesn’t communicate well) recently asked us to give feedback about how the people in my department were working with a new support position – in front of the person who holds the position! Mistake number one. Before anyone could offer up any assessment, he jumped in to say that he thinks she’s doing an amazing job and he’s heard so many colleagues describe her as being phenomenal, a life-saver, insightful, etc. He then re-opened the floor for feedback from the rest of the group. I doubt anyone was going to say anything critical anyway, but there’s no way I was going to follow up those comments!

  13. I Cannot Think Of A Clever Name*

    I used to have a boss who was awesome and actively sought constructive feedback. He truly welcomed all points of view in a healthy dialogue. It was wonderful. Then he retired and awful new boss took his place. This new person only wants “yes men.” It has been a culture shock for many of us. New awful boss only wants to hear what is wonderful, positive, and happy about the company. Not a single negative comment is ever welcomed. A few months ago she actually screamed at all of us in a leadership meeting when someone mentioned that not everything was going swimmingly in the trenches.

  14. Maxwell Edison*

    Hint for managers: When your team of five people let you know their qualms about a proposed plan that, if implemented, will result in policy violations that could get the company in trouble with auditors, don’t raise your hackles, refuse to meet with your team, and ask that only one team member present you with the issues. This leads to the assumption that you do not care about policy violations and that your request for only one team member to present the issues means that this one employee will be the scapegoat.

    We ended up sending two team members to present our issues to her, figuring she couldn’t fire both of us. (Yes, this job was a bit toxic, why do you ask?)

  15. Blurgle*

    6. Take critical feedback better from some employees than others.

    The old “male/white/older employees are giving a fair critique, but female/black/younger employees are just whining” issue. I haven’t worked in many companies where this hasn’t been the case.

    7. Take sole credit for any ideas.

    Accept criticism but present it to the higher-ups as your personal idea. That’s unlikely to get your team enthused over problem-solving.

  16. Intrepid Intern*

    It also helps if I have time to consider how I’ll phrase things, especially if the manager is asking for negative or very broad feedback. I was once cornered by someone who wanted to know “everything I didn’t like about the internship program, the organization, the staff, all of it!” On the spot. No lady, I need references.

  17. AdAgencyChick*

    I am so, so tempted to print this out and leave it on a certain someone’s chair while she’s on vacation. Except she’d probably guess it was me.

  18. Justin*

    One thing I really don’t like is how so many managers ask you how you feel about things, but want consensus on everything. Not everything is going to be liked by everyone and that’s OK. Hell, sometimes the right decision isn’t liked by anybody but it still has to happen.

  19. Wanna-Alp*

    Another one that I’ve seen is to request honest feedback via a web survey, publicized company-wide, assuring people that this was an anonymous survey…

    …but it wasn’t.

  20. Splishy*

    Another one: Lying about the feedback you’ve received.

    I was asked (volentold really, but that’s a different issue) to represent my department at a feedback/brainstorming session with the regional manager and branch president about employee retention and employee satisfaction. We talked for over 2 hours. The main topic that we spent at least 1 hour on was about vacation time/PTO: allowing employees to bank overtime (we were non-exempt) or comp time, allowing more rollover, accruing PTO faster, creating a culture where employees felt that they *could* take their vacation time, etc.

    Comes the next week when the HR rep sends out the “minutes” from the meeting to the rest of the employees. Zero mention that vacation/PTO was even discussed. We spent at least 50% of the session on this topic and it wasn’t even a line item in the minutes?

    Lost all respect for management right then.

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