Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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Archive for January, 2012

One of my favorite one-liners came from a friend of mine who works a lot with senior executives: “There are two things you never get as a CEO: A bad lunch, and the truth.” People usually chuckle when they hear that – because like all good humor, it has a grain of truth in it. This should be disconcerting for leaders. How can you run a company, division, or even department if nobody will tell you the truth?

Do You Hear The Truth?

For most executives, one of the most difficult things is making sure that you are getting critical feedback from people in your company. One client, a newly minted VP at a major multinational company quipped to a friend as they sat down for lunch: “I used to be able to say whatever I wanted. Now, I have to watch what I say, because suddenly, what I say matters. Whenever I say something, people run around doing stuff!”  This is the good news/bad news of being in charge: People pay attention to your actions and words!  The good news is that when you talk, things happen. The bad news is that if you haven’t gone out of your way to make sure that the truth is coming your way with intentional regularity, then it won’t – because people are waiting to see what you think before they tell you risky truth.

…or Does the Emperor Have No Clothes?

There’s a reason why the story about “The Emperor Has No Clothes” has lived on for so long. Like all lasting stories, there is an intuitive truth expressed in the story – that people are afraid to deliver tough messages to the boss. It seems irrational (even infuriating) when you are the boss, right? You know what a nice person you are. What we miss is that it is a perfectly rational response when viewed through the lens of human survival. We’ve seen other people pay the price for offering a point of view that differed too far from that of  the boss. Most of us don’t even think about it. We know that there is a line that you just don’t cross, and like dogs who have been trained to know when they are approaching the boundary lined out by the invisible fence, we instinctively stop when we sense that we are getting close to the edge.

Six Tips to Engender Candor in Your Organization

1. — Ask for feedback. Especially if there is an area of your work that you are trying to improve, ask people for the bad news. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t tell you right away. If there is a longstanding pattern of treating the boss with kid gloves, it may take a few tries. If you demonstrate that it’s OK to tell the truth, it’s amazing how much people will tell you if you ask. It’s equally amazing how long they will let you trundle along, blissfully ignorant of your shortcomings – unless you ask. People have learned that it is usually safer to not tell the boss she has warts.

2. — Listen to the feedback. This one is so important, I was inclined to put it first (if not for the temporal sequence of asking for and then receiving feedback). If you are not prepared to listen to others‘ points of view, it is better not to ask. I’m always surprised by the number of times I have seen people ask for feedback and then not ignore or discount the response.

3. — Thank them for the feedback. If someone has enough courage to give you feedback, the first thing you should do is thank them, irrespective of the substance of the message. If you are hurt, disappointed, or frustrated by an aspect of the feedback, don’t react. Thank them sincerely, take some time to reflect on it, then when you are able to see the value of the feedback, go back and thank them more specifically, letting them know how the feedback helped you.

4. — Develop Powerful Listening Skills in your leaders. Listening well is a skill. Some leaders are naturally gifted listeners, but even those are pressed for time. Leaders need to recognize and value that an important part of their job is listening to the people that rely upon them for leadership. Make it a priority in your organization, and make sure your leaders understand how to do it well.

5. — Develop feedback skills in your leaders. It’s one of the most difficult tasks to do well, and it’s one of the most important skills that a leader can have. The most effective leaders are able to deliver feedback that leaves the hearer feeling stronger for having received it, irrespective of the message. It’s easy to imagine how someone would feel stronger for having heard an encouraging feedback message. It is equally true of a well thought out, meaningful constructive or corrective feedback message. Click here for more about delivering powerful feedback.

6. — Never underestimate the power of the truth. In my years in Human Resources, coaching, and developing others, I am always surprised at the number of times that managers will say “I don’t know what to tell her/him.” They are often shocked to hear me say “Why don’t you tell them the truth?” This is not a license to be rude. You often have to think carefully about what is the useful piece of information for the hearer, and then speak clearly, simply, and with compassion. Too often, managers will deliver a tough feedback message couched in so many qualifiers that by the time it reaches the recipient, they think everything is great. It’s much better just to speak plainly.

If this sounds simple, well, that’s because it is. It does not have to be complicated to work. Don’t mistake simple for easy, however. The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these six things can be a good start toward building candor and feedback into the culture of your part of the organization.