Question: How can we have candid discussions in our meetings?

Having worked in large corporations most of my career, I have recently joined a smaller organization as their head of retail operations.

I enjoy the opportunity to use my creativity in the new role. CEO is a long time acquaintance who gives me a free hand.

I am intrigued, however, by one behavior in our weekly senior management meetings. Whenever I bring up a new idea, no one gives feedback till the CEO has spoken, and then they invariable support her position. And they are all veterans in this company.

Individually, I find them to be much more candid with feedback, often conveying things which are contradictory to CEOs opinion.

Is this a red flag?

6 Expert Insights

You are obviously describing a culture that exist in the company. CEO has done things in the past that has created conditions you describe. This means that the only way to change is for the CEO to make changes how she acts.

Since the two of you know each other, I would suggest you talk to the CEO. Tell her what you are observing and then share with her how you think things would work better if this way of being is changed.

You are operating in a culture that has set this up. No one comments until after the CEO has passed judgment, then it's easy to agree.  If your CEO doesn't want it to be this way (hopefully), then the two of you can change the conditions that exist in the meetings. Here is what I teach my clients that seems to be pretty effective.

1. The CEO needs to be quite and not render an opinion when a new idea is proposed.
2. Go around the table and ask each person, by name, to comment on the idea.
3. Thank everyone for their feedback and then ask the CEO what he/she thinks.
4. The CEO only comments after everyone has had their say.

It will be a little awkward for everyone at first, since there aren't accustomed to doing things this way. But after a few meetings, they will feel more open to providing feedback without waiting for the CEO to comment.

Candor is indeed a desirable attribute for a leadership team. The demise of most businesses seems to correlate with a failure to deal with the realities presented by their changing business environments. Leaders appreciate candor; dictators not so much. Lack of candor certainly is a red flag, if your goal is to be part of a high-performing organization.

Since you have a relationship with your CEO, you may wish to have a conversation about the desirability of candor. After all, it's much more efficient to work out differences in the meeting than in the back halls.

To achieve candor there must first be a clear declaration, from the top down, that candor is desired. Then behaviors need to match the rhetoric - from the top down. And finally, people must be rewarded for displaying candor and not rewarded for stifling it.

I agree with my colleagues that the first step is for you to have a conversation with the CEO and share your observations.  If this is not the desired behavior, then the CEO does need to wait to comment - or maybe not even comment at all.

But I believe additional issues should be addressed here.

Another thought is to look at the preferences of the meeting attendees and also the content of the meetings.  Is the intent of the meeting just to be a "rubber stamp" or is "real dialogue" encouraged?  If real dialogue is encouraged, are the introverts in the group given the opportunity to think through their responses?  Or maybe the key issue is the team's lack of knowledge as to the importance of their role?  Is participation a requirement of the job?  Are the team members held accountable for the decisions of the team?  Is there a lack of managerial courage?

As you speak with the CEO about this issue, you also may want to brainstorm ways to improve the team dynamics.  Human Synergistics' Group Styles Inventory (and the work/conversation that surrounds this tool) is a great way to begin identifying, and then moving, team behavior from passive/aggressive to constructive/collaborative.  

Just some ideas for you to ponder.  Hope this helps.

Good luck!


The behavior of your colleagues is understandable but not reasonable.  If this is consistent behavior, I suspect that it stems from the CEO and his ability, intentionally or not, to intimidate his direct reports.  One rule I use is to ask folks to check their ego's at the door and communicate authentically and honestly.  It is only through respectful and open dialogue that organizations can progress and reach their objectives.  Life is too short for dishonesty, "yes" people and herd mentality.  Try what I suggest and see what happens.

You have received several good suggestions from my colleagues above.  I suppose that how open the CEO will be to recognizing what has been created and the desire to change it would have something to do with how successful the approach has been for the organization.  To elaborate ... if the CEO is right on and the lion's share of his/her opinions have been the right ones for the company, the motive to change his/her ways is simply not going to be a strong.  However, it's a reasonable guess to presume that although there have been hits in terms of the right decisions, there have probably also been those that did not lead to the ultimate success.  This then would/should create a willingness to change the approach with the remainder of the team.

As you are a friend of ... I would imagine this conversation will not be a difficult one and you then are doing something that will change the environment for all of the leadership team.  Once this awareness is present, the balance of the team is going to need to understand the changes that the CEO is making and for what reasons.  It then becomes the responsibility of all to express themselves in ways that are true to their beliefs and opinions.  And ... by the way ... a coach/facilitator would be a great person to lead this game changing session as he/she would be an objective voice trained in the use of the tools that can do this most effectively.

A very good question!!  Best of luck