Upward Feedback and the Value of a Leadership Mentor

The higher up in an organization a leader sits, the harder it is for them to receive honest feedback. By example, leaders have this same capacity to encourage those around them, in many cases their ability to lead is based upon an honest trait that brings out the best in others. We each have the capacity to inspire others, but before we make those choices we must look within ourselves to determine are we living a true and authentic life to even be an example for others to follow.

In a paper by the Harvard Business Review, Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, there are many strong references about this challenge that begin with a devotion and dedication to personal growth. According to a survey by the American Society for Training and Development, 75% of private sector executives said that mentoring had been critical in helping them reach their current position. So, if that’s the case, why do so many of us feel that it is difficult to give our managers, leaders and supervisors professional feedback without the fear of consequences and repercussions?

Encouraging Upward Feedback

If we believe leadership is about perception, how will leaders know how they are doing if they are unaware how they are perceived? If asked even the most sensitive professional will share with you that they appreciate honest feedback, but why has it become common place not to give feedback to one’s management. Most theories on this topic suggest that you should not give feedback in an upward manner unless requested.  However, I believe some guiding principles, perhaps helpful principles in this exercise could include:


  • Be certain your boss is open and receptive to feedback before speaking up
  • Share with he/she what you are seeing and hearing in the organization or unit
  • Focus on how you can help improve, not on what you would do if you were boss


  • Assume your boss doesn’t want feedback if they have not requested it — ask if they would like to hear your insight
  • Presume you know or appreciate your boss’s full situation
  • Give feedback as way to get back at your boss for giving you negative feedback

Finally, it is not your responsibility to be the voice of the organization, when giving constructive feedback upwards, you should feel confident to share your professional opinion.  I admire those of us, who are confident with our communication skills and believe they are mature enough to have these types of discussions with their leadership. It also says something about the organization if your leaders welcome these discussion, which is my hope for the environment where you work.   At Coley & Associates, I am very fortunate to work with a leadership team that has an open-door policy, we have all taken the Predictive Index Personality Assessment and feel very confident in who we are and what we bring to the table. People are extremely complex. This personality assessment uses a science-based methodology which allows you to understand what drives workplace behaviors so that you can ensure alignment, drive your team’s success, and achieve your business objectives faster than you ever thought possible.

In our organization, this is extremely important because, our creative thinking, innovative use of technologies and collaborative approach has enabled us to offer superior training, performance, and information technology solutions to Government organizations who enjoy our feedback.

Are You a Boss, Mentor, or Both?

Today in society, the term authentic self, has become a commonly used term to describe how each of us wishes to live our lives.  In other terms having your boss as a mentor, can seem like the perfect match for your working environment however, there are quite a few pitfalls to avoid in these circumstances to ensure you can independently be successful.  It is important to establish the expectations at the beginning of the relationship to allow for mutually agreed upon standards of communication. This includes and is not limited to the topics of discussion and the area of growth you are seeking guidance on.  If this is done early in the relationship one can avoid awkward discussions because of not establishing the protocols for how the mentoring relationship will work.  Finally, be fair and realistic, when this works, it works, no matter if you are the mentor or mentee, always remember to think through your points and inclusionary feedback before presenting them to leadership, or when leaders present them to you.  It is true in all cases that giving constructive feedback is a gift and so with that thought, you never want to be misconstrued, and have your conversation turn into one all parties will regret at some later point.

By Janet Williams

As Director of Human Capital and Performance Consulting for Coley & Associates, Dr. Janet E. Williams provides Government clients and commercial companies insight on how to leverage resources and maximize services for improvements to company operations. She specializes in mentoring, progressive management process improvements, accountability and control, revenue enhancements, and other organizational change methods. For almost 20 years, Dr. Williams worked in government and head an Emerging Leaders Program for mentoring youth. Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Hampton University a MBA from Troy State University, and her doctorate in Public Policy and Leadership from Walden University.

15 replies on “Upward Feedback and the Value of a Leadership Mentor”

As a boss, when I took the time to create the environment where constructive feedback was welcomed it was given. But it does required time, energy and intention. Those three things were not always available therefore the 4th element of consistency was missing. I believe a structured mentoring relationship would have supported me to ensure the time was devoted to this important piece in a productive work environment.

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