What is the main unwritten rule

Management blog

Book excerpt from “Tabu - Hidden Rules and Unwritten Laws in Organizations” by Thomas Saller / Sebastian Mauder / Simone Flesch


Book author Thomas Saller


If nobody is telling the (whole) truth anymore - give critical feedback upwards

Monday morning, 9:00 a.m. in a German conference room: All product managers have already gathered for the monthly strategy review meeting, only the managing director is still missing. There is a lively chat. Here and there discussions are held or short meetings are arranged. And you exchange ideas about the new target metrics that were introduced last week as part of a strategy conference. Both positive and critical voices can be heard - about the conference and about the new target figures.

Several product managers report that their employees are mostly critical of changing the internal control logic at crucial points in the middle of the year. The product managers themselves agree that once again the CEO's way of announcing the change wasn't exactly happy. "And Schmidt was really upset this time ... one reproach after the other and not one word of appreciation."

“He's coming!” Frank says quietly but clearly to the others. The mood in the room changes noticeably. There was just an open discussion. Now almost everyone has a smile on their face. The critical voices fall silent. You can still hear the sentence clearly in the room “I found that particularly successful!” When Dr. Schmidt, the managing director of the branch, enters the room. He says “Good morning, ladies, gentlemen!” And takes a seat - wherever he always takes a seat. The others return the greeting - it sounds several times “Good morning, Dr. Schmidt ”through the room - and also take a seat.

Dr. Schmidt opened the round with the question of whether there were any further questions about the new target indicators in the course of communication with the various departments. Klaus answers. And gets the floor: “We discussed this in our department with the team leader. It was similar to our strategy conference - nothing special. "Ulrike adds:" My team leaders think the new key figures are very good - we can finally see where exactly we still need to improve in terms of process quality. "

"And with you Ms. Fischer - your area is known for resistance?" Schmidt in the direction of Franziska. Franziska, not really surprised by the question, replies “Uh ... we've already had one or the other question, Dr. Schmidt. You know our Mr. Meier, he has doubts about innovations. But everything in the usual framework, I've got it under control… ”“ Nice! ”Nods Dr. Schmidt exits and moves on to the first item on the agenda ...


The taboo in brief

In the vast majority of companies and organizations, it is still a taboo to give superiors honest, critical feedback. The greater the gap in the hierarchy between employee and supervisor, the more pronounced the taboo.

First and foremost, it depends on the individual manager whether or not they receive feedback from their employees. There are also a noteworthy number of exceptions, i.e. managers who regularly ask their employees for honest feedback. But only in very few companies is a culture of constructively critical feedback from bottom to top cultivated across the various hierarchical levels. Rather, feedback has only one direction, if any - from top to bottom.


"Tabu - Hidden Rules and Unwritten Laws in Organizations" by Thomas Saller / Sebastian Mauder / Simone Flesch, Haufe Verlag, 29.95 euros, 208 pages, 1st edition 2016:https://shop.haufe.de/prod/tabu


Typical observations from practice:
Honest, and thus, if necessary, critical feedback from employees in the direction of the management is officially repeatedly warned and formally anchored in personnel instruments, but is only rarely really desired.


Employees talk a lot about their boss - but not with him

Superiors do not ask for feedback on their leadership behavior of their own accord and do not face criticism from their employees. When managers ask for feedback, they are only asking their supporters and supporters, from whom they almost exclusively get confirmation. Employees talk a lot about the boss, but not with him.


You tell superiors what they want to hear - but not the truth

When asked, supervisors are not told the truth by their employees, but rather what they probably want to hear from the employees' point of view. In the worst case, this relates not only to feedback on management behavior, but also to assessments of the company or the current status of individual projects.
Unsolicited feedback from employees is met with reserve by superiors, is perceived as insolence or know-it-all or dismissed as "not to be taken seriously".


The manager's disease - the information vacuum

In larger companies or organizations, the following tendency applies: the higher the hierarchical level, the more clearly the phenomenon described can be observed.
Backgrounds. The "manager's disease" as a result of a lack of feedback

The higher the rank of a manager, the less accurate is their self-assessment. It is particularly difficult for executives to get honest feedback - especially when it comes to their leadership skills. ”The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more lonely it can get around you. Goleman and his colleagues call it the "CEO disease", i.e. the "manager's disease": the information vacuum surrounding a manager that arises when employees withhold important (or unpleasant) information. "


The normal overconfidence of top managers

In their isolated position, top managers in particular run the risk of developing the wrong view of their own performance, of their communication behavior and of their effect on employees. Not infrequently they tend to overestimate themselves - also because they lack honest feedback on the comparison.

In a random quick survey in a network of consultants and HR experts in 2016, the question "How open do you think the feedback culture of employees is towards the executives in your company (school grade scale)?" Resulted in the following percentage distribution of the grades awarded (employees from Organizations from 50 employees):

According to the representative study by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, “izf Leadership Study 2016 - What Makes Leadership Sustainable?” Commissioned by the Stuttgart Initiative for Sustainable Leadership (IZF), only 38% of junior employees certify that their direct superior is open to criticism. At 67%, managers are much more likely to attribute openness to criticism to themselves. With this aspect of leadership behavior in particular, there is a clear difference between self-image and image of others with a difference of 29 percentage points.

But also in other aspects of leadership behavior, the differences between self and external image are considerable:


We all live in a perceptual prison - and the door only opens from the outside

This means that you only learn more about yourself in exchange with others. If nobody around you honestly reveals what effect you have on him, you stay in the area of ​​speculation - or with a self-examination guided by your own narcissism. The self-image moves away from the external image that others have of you. The corrective from outside is missing.

However, this does not only affect the top level. The phenomenon already sets in in middle management, precisely at the point where there are relatively few executives on the same hierarchical level and where there is competition. It is one of the well-known pitfalls of executives (in English "leadership derailer") - if a manager does not create a framework for honest feedback and does not check his self-assessment with regard to his own abilities, a manager can quickly fail.

Managers with a high level of reflective ability intuitively sense that they are not always told the truth by their employees. That goes as far as the outright lie. The most common case is the simple omission of important information or the slightly “colored” presentation of facts. It is possible that senior executives only find out about a relevant undesirable development or a current mood in the company very late.


A man who speaks the truth needs a fast horse. (Confucius)

Why employees don't give their superiors critical feedback

“I want to be in a good position with the boss.” Employees want to be perceived as positive, optimistic, good team players and competent problem solvers. In short, they want to please the boss. For this reason, negative details are simply left out. And so the boss is sometimes even shown the notorious Potemkin villages, something finely dressed up to hide the actual, devastating state of the situation. On the surface, the representations then have gloss, appear elaborate and impressive, but lack substance in terms of content.


Anyone who expresses concerns is quickly no longer taken seriously

There are also those employees who regularly express their concerns or skepticism, who want to point out risks. However, they often have a blocking effect and quickly have the reputation of being the suspect. The phenomenon of association bias means that superiors tend to avoid bringing bad news after their first meeting. The conversations with them are destructive and exhausting from their point of view. Once employees have this reputation, their advice will no longer be taken seriously.


Just don't put the boss in a bad mood

“If I am too critical, I get a bad rating.” Often the superior is solely responsible for assessing his employees, and he makes the decision as to which employee is eligible for a promotion. Employees are therefore dependent on the favor of their boss for their professional advancement. If the employee still “wants to become something”, then he is even more dependent on the boss having a positive image of him. He will try to avoid putting the boss in a bad mood. This means that in almost every interaction with the boss there is the possibility that the employee will at least also act tactically.

“That could cause trouble.” There are also myths from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages that tell of the bearer of the bad news being punished or even killed. The reaction will probably not be that bad these days. But many employees are reluctant for fear of the boss's reaction. Even the one-off reaction of the supervisor to incomprehension, annoyance or anger can lead to the employee not telling everything the next time.

Even if the employee who addresses a problem is immediately given the task of working out a solution, even though the topic does not fall within their original responsibility, then this will rather inhibit them from naming problems in the future.


Don't want to offend the boss - just don't give drastic feedback

“I don't want to hurt the other.” Employees may also be concerned that honest feedback to the boss would be very hurtful for him. This is especially true for superiors, for whom the employees cannot think of much when asked what the boss is doing well. Accordingly, feedback would be poor. Many shy away from such drastic feedback.

"Nothing changes anyway if I say something." Especially when it comes to the managerial behavior of the superior, life teaches us that hardly anything fundamentally changes overnight. Human behavior patterns have been practiced for a long time and are very stable. From the employee's point of view, the chances of change appear low compared to the risks - all the more so if the superior does not signal his interest in feedback.


Why superiors don't ask for feedback: they can't change anyway

"I will not change anyway ..." Exactly the same consideration is also given by the superior. The older the manager is, the more often you will encounter this attitude. The power of habit - you look back on a long period of time as a manager, you have found your leadership style and your way of dealing with things and you will not change these habits "in your old days" either. Everyone has experience of how powerful habit can be.

90% of people who have had a heart attack and are told by the doctor “change your lifestyle, otherwise you will have more pain, need further operations and die earlier” do not manage to adapt their behavior to the new requirements, according to Dr. Edward Miller, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. As a manager with this attitude, you are in good company.


No time for feedback because the time pressure of the executives is too high

“I don't have the time for that!” Reflecting on your own management actions and dealing with the feedback from my employees cost energy and, quite simply, time. Obtaining feedback or maneuvering criticism at the end of a meeting must be scheduled in a timely manner.

Time is a precious commodity - and therefore also a good argument to avoid feedback. Managers are often actually under enormous time pressure. In a recent coaching session, a manager said: “I'm rotating at the moment, I hardly ever get to eat. I don't need any criticism from below. 60 hours of work are enough for me ... "

“What do they already know about my job?” Managers generally rate their own competence higher than that of the employee. If you are asked the following task in a management workshop: "Please stick two points on a scale from 0 to 100% - a green one for yourself and a yellow one for your employees - as an answer to the question of how well you think the skills are developed dealing with your own daily challenges. ”- then almost always the same picture emerges. The managers' own perception of competence is higher than the competence level that they ascribe to their employees. Typical assessments are 90% and 70% or 85% and 75% or 80% and 65%.


If it is about middle management and you think through the logic and the glued gaps, you would in most cases have to expand the scale to 150% in order to be able to depict the executive board on the scale. That would be a mistake, of course, but it illustrates the effect. But why should you, as a manager, ask someone for assessments who you consider to be less competent than yourself? Or of whom you believe that he has no experience and therefore no idea about his own job anyway?

“I have to be strong.” In the eyes of some managers, asking employees how they found a meeting, workshop or speech would signal uncertainty. Showing insecurity as a manager and a guide would be a sign of weakness. Showing weakness is a taboo, especially for old-fashioned male executives. As a manager, you have to accept your responsibility and be there for your employees - and not the other way around.


“Somebody is sawing my chair” - bosses mistake feedback for threat

“Somebody is sawing my chair.” Some executives see open negative feedback as a threat to their authority and thus their position in the company. They just don't allow feedback. There are sanctions in the event of non-compliance.

“The constant wailing doesn't get me anywhere.” Many employees are not very used to giving feedback. The benefit of some feedback is in some cases zero for the manager. The way in which the feedback is given is sometimes very clumsy or even daunting from the manager's point of view. Examples of mistakes:

  • Give unsolicited feedback in front of others or even in front of the customer or in public
  • General accounting, according to the motto: "I've always wanted to tell you ..."
  • or "While we're at it, the following ..."
    only on topics outside the manager's sphere of influence
    only give negative ratings
  • or emphasize the weaknesses of the manager unrestrained, quick-tempered to vent your own anger - "the boss has to endure that ..."


F.eedback as an attack on self-esteem

"That really hurt" If you really think about feedback, if you let it get to you, then you have to reflect, question, examine, weigh up, evaluate and, if necessary, defend, explain and adapt for yourself in an internal dialogue. First of all, all of this costs energy. What happens in the event of negative feedback? For the feedback recipient, critical feedback is an attack on their self-esteem - if it is not entirely unjustified and essential for the feedback recipient. The threat to self-image and self-esteem is all the more serious, the stronger the intensity of the attack and the lower the person's self-esteem. Such an attack is uncomfortable and doesn't feel good. Because most people want to see themselves and their interactions as positive by and large. If someone else does not see you or your actions positively, they have to position yourself in some way.


There are three possible reactions to this:

On the one hand, the feedback recipient can question himself. This creates an inner state of insecurity. Because you act with the inner conviction that you are doing the right thing and now you have to question that. That costs the energy described above. If the feedback recipient has an unstable self-esteem, in the worst case scenario he embarks on a spiral of self-reproach and self-accusation.

Secondly, the feedback recipient can degrade the feedback provider in his or her reputation: He's easy to talk, doesn't know the circumstances, assesses the situation completely wrong, comes to completely wrong conclusions, is totally unfair, can't do anything himself, doesn't like me anyway , thinks only of his own advantage, it no longer has all of them ... until the other person's assessment no longer affects him.

The third option is repression. The feedback recipient does not let the feedback get to him at the moment, directs his attention to other topics and does not deal with it any further. He hides the feedback.

If one assumes that middle and senior executives tend to be more convinced of themselves than constantly questioning themselves, and are also often under pressure, then reactions two and three are closer than the first. Or how do you rate your boss?


Dealing strategies - strategies for employees

Anyone who wants open feedback cannot tolerate critical feedback for a long time

Pay attention to what is customary in your organization on the subject of feedback and deal consciously with your feedback upwards - as a newcomer, giving unsolicited critical feedback will rarely earn you recognition.

Also, beware of feedback neuroses from senior executives - some people absolutely and constantly demand "open feedback", but then cannot tolerate critical feedback.
Before you give up your feedback, check your subject. Provide your feedback to support the feedback taker. Ask yourself what added value your feedback will bring to the feedback recipient.

Warning: You are not responsible for the personal development, upbringing, or teaching of your boss!

Pay attention to your attitude towards the supervisor: You should respect the supervisor and accept it in their role. If you don't like her, you will find it difficult to see the positive side of her and to show her respect. On the contrary - you will keep making observations that confirm your opinion. “Prejudices are confirmed by interested perception”, writer Michael Löhner sums it up. The manager will feel that you do not respect or dislike them.


Criticism in homeopathic doses ... never publicly
“Be loyal!” Advises Alexander Groth, keynote speaker and trainer, “Talk to him, not about him.” Under no circumstances should you give your feedback in public and never go to the feedback recipient's boss first. Rather, work on the relationship with the feedback recipient and find a basis on which you can give feedback with confidence.


.. best positively reinforcing

Use the power of positive reinforcement - give positive feedback, specifically! Then your supervisor will know what has been well received. Most bosses only get criticism - from all sides.


... and at the right time

Pay attention to the timing - provide feedback in a timely manner on the event you are referring to. Caution: Do not give your feedback at the wrong time, e.g. between the door and the hinge just before the next important appointment starts. Your boss will only have a chance to listen to you if he has the time and leisure for your feedback. If this is not the case, your feedback has the maximum effect of annoying your boss.

Pay attention to the area of ​​influence of the feedback recipient. You can certainly address a general grievance with the request to pass it on to the top. But there is nothing less edifying for a manager than having to constantly accept criticism of framework conditions that they cannot change anyway.

Pay attention to the amount - the less critical points you raise, the more likely it is that something will change.
Rules for feedback providers

Specific facts

Describe what happened concretely and as objectively as possible, without evaluations based on your own observations.

Effect subjective

Describe what effect the described event or behavior had on you or how you assess the situation.

Request / wish for change

Attach a constructive suggestion of an alternative approach if it makes sense in the specific case.

The website http://www.feedback-fuer-den-chef.de/ offers you the opportunity to give anonymous feedback.


Strategies for managers

Feedback is a cultural issue - create framework conditions! And possibly also a process if you want to collect structured feedback from all managers. Be patient - it takes time to establish a real feedback culture. Employees have to learn that their feedback does not have negative consequences. Managers need to show that they respond well to the feedback and that something is happening.


Organizational development is a matter for the boss - or it doesn't take place!

Think about the form and situation in which you want to collect feedback: once a year, computer-assisted and anonymously throughout the organization, as required in the context of externally moderated workshops using supportive methods or regularly as an item on the agenda "short maneuver criticism" at the end of a meeting format. There are countless possibilities, all of them have advantages and disadvantages - which combination brings you the greatest benefit?


Trust your employees with the assessment

Trust your employees, especially as a group, to assess whether, for example, you are doing your managerial job as a boss on the whole well - and also which topics you might be able to improve on. As a rule, employees are very good at assessing the mood in the company. You can then get professional support on the question of what exactly you can improve to optimize the suitability and impact of your leadership interactions in certain situations. The goal is important. Well-managed employees feel good, are motivated and perform well.

If you want to ask employees for open feedback during a conversation, please note:

  • only if you are really interested!
  • only if you are also open to negative feedback. Do not ask individual employees in front of the group for feedback without warning, give feedback, and maybe about yourself - this will put the employee in a mess.
  • Earn the trust of employees and avoid directly evaluating feedback. If you punish the courage of your employees with strong evaluations, you destroy trust. Rather, try to understand why the feedback giver sees things the way he sees them.
  • Pay attention to which employees at the various levels of the hierarchy are self-confident and constructively critical and ask them.
  • Be open about what kind of feedback you want and what you don't want. In this way you give the employees a kind of “guide” to themselves.
  • Make sure your employees know what good feedback is and give them opportunities to practice. Practice shows time and again that implementing the feedback rules is not that easy for many.

Rules for feedback recipients

Thanks for the feedback

Whether you like it or not, be grateful that someone gave you feedback. This is the only way to compare your point of view with the point of view of others.

Concerns by your own standards

Have you been told this before? Is that how you see the aspect mentioned?

Adaptation without giving up

They are not there to please every employee. Think about how you want to react to the feedback, what you want to keep and what you might want to change. Show the feedback provider that you have dealt with the feedback, even if you do not change anything - it will make them feel that they are being taken seriously.
Use the possibilities of external experts, e.g.

  • a trainer to provide feedback
  • a moderator for your workshops
  • a coach for your handling of feedback and your personal development
  • a leadership companion for working on your leadership interactions in specific everyday situations

Further information:




Category: General | Tags: "Taboo - Hidden Rule and Unwritten Laws in Organizations", book excerpt, self-perception, external perception, executives, Haufe Verlag, criticism, Thomas Saller. Sebastian Mauder. Simone Flesch