Building an Open, Candid Organizational Culture | Leadership Training

Best Practices for Building an Open, Candid Organizational Culture

Have you ever been sitting in a business meeting listening to a senior leader opine about their latest “great idea” and watched everyone smile and nod approvingly while you rolled your eyes (in your head of course) trying to figure out how your group will make the boss happy by implementing this latest ridiculous idea while trying to keep the organization afloat in the process?  Then, after the meeting you migrate to the break room where a small group has gathered to both snicker and swear about their long laundry list of concerns/grievances with the boss’ latest delusion filled “great idea”.

I call this phenomena “the ugly baby syndrome” because the reality is that most employees are not willing to tell the boss they have an “ugly baby”.  Leaders are charged with coming up with visionary ideas and making key decisions that have a significant impact on the trajectory of the organization and the bottom line.  Unfortunately the reality is that many of those “great ideas” actually aren’t that great.  The view from 100,000 feet is often quite different from the working level view and executives often leave out pesky details like excessive workloads, confusing project priorities, morale impacts, necessary process changes, or other risks or costs that they may not have considered during their “analysis”.  The simple reality is that making key decisions without the benefit of full information often leads to disappointing if not disastrous results.

In extremely healthy, open organizational cultures line staff actively work with senior leadership to provide this reality check and help them figure out how to best achieve the desired business goals/vision in a manner that’s reasonable and realistic, and they’re also willing to push back on ideas that simply don’t pass the smell test.  Unfortunately, as a corporate trainer I’ve found that most organizations don’t benefit from this type of open and honest culture; instead, “the ugly baby” culture is all too common.  One obvious question becomes….why do so many organizations suffer from this?  Having worked with many teams in different types of organizations and industries, I’ve found four primary types/reasons that lead to the ugly baby syndrome (which typically leads to the opposite of an open, candid organizational culture):

Afraid of Being Black Balled

Fear of retribution keeps this person from speaking up.  They don’t want to be seen by the boss as challenging him/her and simply don’t want to risk getting on their “bad side”.  Maybe they’ve seen negative consequences doled out in the past, and they’re not willing to take that chance.  After all, they have bills to pay.

The Follower

This person has valid concerns but never wants to be the first to say something.  As soon as someone else challenges the idea or voices a risk, they readily pounce with their feedback as well, but they’re just not willing to stick their neck out and be the first to comment.

Second Guesser

This person thinks they have valid concerns, but they’re not sure.  They think to themselves “everyone else seems to think it’s a great idea so I must be missing something, right?” Oftentimes, younger or newer staff may fall victim to this type of thinking.  They may assume that others are more experienced and would have certainly already thought through all the risks.

Passive Aggressive

This employee just may not care enough to make the effort to contribute.  They may even want the boss or the team to fail and would rather just sit back and watch the idea crash and burn.  Sometimes this type employee has developed this negative attitude after years of trying to actively contribute in the past only to be ignored or minimized.

The best approach for developing a more open and honest organizational culture is a mutual one where both leaders and staff do their part.  Leaders actively work to encourage a culture where constructive feedback is welcomed, and staff are willing to readily share any constructive feedback/key information they may have.  The question then becomes how does each group do that?

Techniques leaders can use to build an open candid organizational culture

  • Tell them that you value constructive feedback, and more importantly show them through your actions.
  • Create a corporate value around valuing honest feedback – e.g. “We value constructive criticism and don’t personalize it.”
  • Encourage project managers or team leaders to end kickoff meetings with new projects or new teams by asking each attendee to anonymously finish this sentence on a white index card “The biggest concern I have about our project/team’s success is….” Collect all cards in a gift bag outside the meeting room.
  • Designate someone to play the role of devil’s advocate during team meetings (rotate the role).
  • Institute a natural, immediate vetting process for all new projects/initiatives.
  • Create various vehicles for ongoing anonymous feedback (360 surveys, outside consultant interviews, even traditional opinion boxes) but none of these work if leadership isn’t committed to following up on feedback received.

The elephant in the room is that yes, this all sounds good, but from the employee’s perspective – how do I tell my boss their idea/decision is flawed (if not downright crazy)?

Ways staff can provide constructive feedback to leadership (and encourage a candid organizational culture)….

  • Frame it around the leader’s known hot button issues – “Jim, I know how much you’re focused on reducing our defect rate, so I just want to point out that if we did move forward with using only a single vendor, I’m sure you’re aware that that would place us in a position of being vulnerable to any quality issues they might pass on. I’m just wondering if that’s something that you’re comfortable with?”
  • Ask for permission – “Jim, I’m here to execute your vision, and I want to do that to the best of my ability. I do want to clarify though.  If I become aware of potential risks along the way, do you want me to also bring those to your attention?”
  • Present risk analysis data – “Jim, I know that you want to move forward with the new inventory process as soon as possible, so I pulled together a task team to begin working on that and we conducted some standard risk analysis as part of our planning process.  Could I set up some time to review the results with you?”

The harsh political reality is that the higher one travels up the hierarchical food chain, the more positive information tends to become.  Whether it’s telling the emperor they have no clothes or that their baby isn’t as cute as they might think, no one really wants to do it.  The danger though is that in today’s ultra-competitive landscape oftentimes if an organization doesn’t have a culture where they’re willing to find their faults and fix them, their customers will often be forced to do it for them.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at  Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.