MIND THE GAP: LEADING CHANGE WITH OPEN EYES Part Five: How to Avoid “Naked Emperor Syndrome”

Throughout this blog series we have examined the perception-reality gap between senior executives and middle managers regarding organizational change and that gap’s negative impact on people and business success. Wrapping up the series, let’s explore how impaired feedback loops perpetuate this perception-reality gap by manifesting “naked emperor syndrome”.

Naked Emperor Syndrome and Organizational ChangeHans Christian Andersen’s classic 1837 tale The Emperor’s New Clothes depicts the problem when a leader is surrounded by people who will not risk speaking truth to power because they fear his retribution. To varying degrees, this dynamic plays out in organizations around the world every day. Perceiving risk or a lack of psychological safety, people withhold valuable feedback that could help senior executives in the long run.

Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” and found people’s fear of risk taking is amplified during change. This means leaders must be even more vigilant about creating a safe place for truth telling. I’ve frequently listened to middle managers describe their fear of sharing feedback upwards. “I’m not confident that sticking my neck out will make a difference.” “We’ve tried before but were not heard and/or someone was penalized for trying.” Ironically, in some of these same organizations, senior executives’ express frustration with the lack of quality feedback they receive, and/or an assumed sense of being “in the know.” 

On the flip side, in working with strong change leaders I’ve noticed their ability to cultivate effective feedback loops is closely linked to how they respond to feedback. More specifically, successful leaders respond with curiosity and openness to feedback, even when that feedback is critical. What these savvy leaders don’t do is deflect feedback, making it about the individual sharing it, or the team or leadership. They also do not act defensively, punishing or shaming the feedback giver privately or publicly, signaling to others it’s not safe to “speak truth to power.” As a result, they hold a stronger pulse on change efforts and reduce the risk of manifesting naked emperor syndrome. 

I was lucky to work for such a leader very early in my career. My boss asked me to be a point of contact for her on high priority issues while she was on vacation. One such issue involved the forthcoming layoff of several executives in a business unit. Listening in on a planning meeting, I was surprised to learn no outplacement benefits were being considered for the leaders impacted. I didn’t raise the issue on the group call, thinking, “Maybe I’m missing something?” Afterward, I learned the reason for cutting back support resources, but my gut told me it would cause unnecessary hardship for the impacted executives. It also conflicted with our firm values to care for employees and could potentially cause a PR backlash. I called my boss’s boss, the head of global HR, reintroduced myself with my voice shaking and quickly shared the issue. He not only listened, he thanked me for reaching out and asked, “How quickly can you come up with recommended outplacement resources?” Later that day, he visited me in person and let me know he’d informed the project team of his expectations for full outplacement support and that I would lead the implementation.

How to Create a Healthy Feedback Loop
The way this executive responded to my feedback, both during the call and after, led directly to a more effective roll-out of the layoff for all concerned. He could have easily dismissed me – a junior business analyst fresh out of business school – and not even made time for a conversation in the first place. Instead, by being open in our conversation he reduced my anxiety within a few minutes, helping me to think clearly and find my confidence. Learning from this leader and other smart executives is a playbook for creating a healthy feedback loop.

  • Actively seek feedback from people across the organization.
  • When people share feedback, listen with curiosity and without judgement. 
  • Ask open questions and check your understanding of what they are saying.
  • Resist explaining your opinion(s) of why something is happening or not.
  • Acknowledge people’s leadership and courage for sharing their feedback.
  • When action is taken, let the person know the specific impact their voice created. 

As with the other strategies I’ve shared throughout this blog series, creating this safe space is not going to happen overnight. Facilitating a shift will take consistency, effort, and trust from all parties involved. But when the reward is a significant narrowing or elimination of the perception-reality gap so that meaningful change can be made – that is an ROI with immeasurable value!

Leadership Reflection:
Historically, how do you respond to feedback and what has been the impact?
How do you recognize/reward critical feedback?
How can you test with someone in your organization how “safe” it is to share tough feedback upwards?