How to Encourage Honest Upward Feedback: Our 7 Proven Tips to Empower Your Team to Speak Up

By Charlotte Carnehl and Julia Reis

Last month, we talked to a woman recently promoted to a management position. She’d been with the company for many years and was deeply embedded in the team. 

But as soon as she took on the “management-hat”, things changed: “I feel that my colleagues don’t talk to me as openly as before”, she said. “I would love to get direct feedback from my team members to develop in my new role as a manager. I’m trying my best to ask for feedback, own my mistakes and create a culture of trust—but, wow, I didn’t expect it to be so hard!”

If you’re in a leadership role, her story might sound familiar. Many of our clients emphasise the wish to receive candid feedback from their team but struggle to create the conditions for it. That’s why upward feedback is one of the topics we cover in our Feedback Essentials Toolkit

Do you also want to encourage your team to speak up? Here’s some advice on how to get started:

Candid feedback makes you and your organisation better

Receiving feedback from your team is not just a “nice to have”; it’s central to your personal and your organisation’s success. 

A team culture without constructively critical input comes with three major challenges for you:

  • It can hold back your professional development: If your team members don’t feel comfortable sharing their feedback or telling you when you’re standing in their way, you can’t develop as a leader. 
  • You might feel isolated: In a leadership role, you’re constantly making decisions that impact your team. These decisions will be better informed and you’ll feel less isolated when you know your team’s views.
  • You are missing out on great ideas: The great thing about working in a team is that we don’t have to be the expert for everything. But if your team doesn’t dare to challenge your ideas, you miss out on potential improvements.

Fear of retaliation is the main reason why employees are reluctant to provide upward feedback

It’s a common phenomenon: The higher you are in an organisation, the more hesitant employees are to challenge your ideas and approaches. 

Why? Because they’re afraid of negative consequences, such as being perceived as a troublemaker or passed over for a promotion. This self-preservation mechanism or protective instinct is so powerful that it also inhibits speech that clearly would have helped the organisation.

What you can do to encourage your team to speak up

Unfortunately, there’s no simple recipe to get from “my team doesn’t talk to me” to “I receive a lot of honest feedback”, but there are some activities you can do can tackle to get there:

Tip 1: Do you want feedback? Ask for it!

As simple as it sounds, the best way to receive more upward feedback is to ask for it. Ensure to phrase your questions as precisely as possible and ask for examples. Also: Many people don’t like to provide upward feedback on the spot, so do them the favour and send your questions in advance so they can prepare.

Some questions you can ask:

  • What can I do to best support you on this project?
  • What do you need from me to solve this problem?
  • What can I do differently next time to be more helpful?

Institutionalise upward feedback 

It’s helpful to establish clear structures and rhythms to give upward feedback the appropriate space. If providing upward feedback is embedded in regular conversations, team members know that it’s wanted and have a specific time and context for it. 

You can receive upward feedback in the following ways:

  • Tip 2: Ask questions via an anonymous survey: One option—and potentially a good starting point—is to ask your team members for anonymous feedback via a survey. Our Feedback Essentials Toolkit includes a questionnaire with statements your team can respond to. Once you’ve analysed the results, sharing your main insights, takeaways and next steps is essential. This way, your team knows that you take their replies seriously and can hold you accountable. 
  • Tip 3: Integrate upward feedback into your 1:1s and feedback conversations: We strongly recommend establishing a slot for upward feedback on the agenda of your 1:1s and regular feedback conversations. This will help your team members to develop a habit of providing upward feedback.
  • Tip 4: Organise a Leadership Feedback Session: Leadership Feedback Sessions can take the shape of a moderated workshop. Team members collect and specify their collective feedback without the manager present with the support of an external facilitator and subsequently present it. Based on this input, the team and its manager jointly develop a way forward.

Your reaction to feedback determines if you get it again

We’ve probably all been there: We take up the courage to provide feedback to someone further up in the hierarchy and their reaction convinces us never to do it again. And we get it— it’s challenging to receive criticism; our brains perceive it as a threat and can go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Being aware of this natural response is already helpful. 

Tip 5: Here are some rules of thumb to follow when you receive feedback:

  • Allow the person to finish their sentence.
  • Don’t justify or defend yourself—but explain if needed.
  • Say “thank you”.
  • Don’t take feedback as a judgement of you as a person.
  • Take your time to think about it.

Tip 6: Your primary role as a feedback recipient should be that of an active listener (and that’s something you can practise). Active listening means staying focused and actively seeking to understand what the other person is telling you. Your job is to register and record facts actively—so to use more effort to listen than to speak. To be in active listening mode, it’s important you minimise distractions (no checking your phone or emails), don’t interrupt, and ask only clarifying questions. It can also be helpful to paraphrase or summarise what the feedback provider has said to ensure you’ve understood them correctly.

Tip 7: What makes all the difference: Psychological safety

Psychological safety is one of the strongest proven predictors of team effectiveness. Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term in 1999, defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This means that team members feel free to ask for help, share feedback, or voice dissenting views because they don’t fear being branded negatively or punished for it. 

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

A psychologically safe environment enables upward feedback because it removes employees’ fear of retaliation. Building psychological safety is a process that requires the right mindset. Your most important contribution? Leading by example. When team members see you modelling a healthy feedback culture, admitting mistakes and showing vulnerability, they will feel empowered to do the same.

Overall, the woman we introduced at the beginning of this article is right: Receiving candid feedback from your team is far from trivial. It requires that you constantly ask for it, establish the right structures, receive it gracefully, and create a psychologically safe environment. But ultimately, it’s worth it—the more you open your feedback door, the more great things will come through it.

👉 Want to learn more about giving and receiving feedback?

Check out our Feedback Essentials Toolkit—a comprehensive guide to all things feedback, including practical exercises, tools and templates. In our toolkit, we’re covering the following topics:

  • Understanding feedback
  • How to give and receive effective feedback
  • How to encourage upward feedback
  • Integrating feedback into your daily work
  • Deep dives into psychological safety and applying coaching methods when giving feedback
December 7, 2023