In the post, Speaking Truth to Power and Keeping Your Job, I outlined five ways employees can engage their management on topics that management may not like. The bulk of the post discusses how to do so in a way that’s safe for the employee. If your team doesn’t feel safe, they are unlikely to give you negative feedback. This leaves you and the organization vulnerable.
It is tempting to take the stance that your employees have an obligation to give you negative feedback if it protects the organization as a whole and you as their leader. That position is sadly naive. Your employees also have an obligation to provide an income for their families, a career path for themselves and as little stress as possible for their sanity.
Your best employees, the most valuable members of your team, desire the ability to make positive change. They are professionals and want to be treated with the respect a professional deserves. It’s your obligation to create an environment where your team feels safe delivering negative feedback. If you’ve failed to create a culture that values this kind of honesty then it’s a clear, albeit uneasy, choice for your employees on what they should do – say nothing or leave.
Keep in mind, an unwillingness to trust you with feedback is an indictment of you as a weak leader.
Changing the culture of the organization you lead will likely require changing your behavior. First, you have to find out if you have a problem. Doing so is more nuanced than just asking “do you feel safe giving me negative feedback” to your team. If they do, they’ll say ‘yes’ willingly and openly. If they don’t, they may say ‘yes’ after a pregnant pause. After all, it’s the safest answer to give. In this case, though, it’s the pause that may tell you the most.
Take a look at how your team responds to your ideas or requests. Is there ever any pushback? Does anyone ever ask why you want to do something? Does anyone ever question the goal or the deadline? If not, you have a problem.
You’re good but not that good. No player scores on every shot they take, and if you are, your team is likely moving the goal for you. If you never receive any pushback, it’s possible you’ve created an environment where the team knows challenges are not acceptable. Your organization can not get better if your ideas are never tested before they enter the marketplace.
Next, you must get vulnerable. There’s a great article from Harvard Business Review, The Leadership Behavior That’s Most Important to Employees, that gives some steps on how you can request feedback on your shortcomings as a leader. The ideas range from anonymous surveys to engaging a select team of trusted colleagues. Every idea requires you to be open with your team, letting them know that you want to have an open environment and fix the current one if it’s broken.
Keep these points in mind:
- Being open that you have shortcoming doesn’t make you weak. It makes you real and demonstrates confidence. Only the weak and insecure feel the need act tough all the time.
- There’s a difference between tough and strong. A weak leader threatens, leaves no room for dissent and will take your head off if he deems it necessary. A strong leader allows for healthy debate then makes the decision, earns the trust of her team and keeps her cool.
- Your employees are not children or cattle. They need neither reprimands nor lashings to perform. If you’ve hired people who will only produce when you verbal berate them, you have failed, not them.
- If you’re worried about losing respect for being open with your team, you can stop. You’re not perfect, and your team already knows it. When you fail to acknowledge your flaws, they don’t believe you are free of them. They just see that you’re not strong enough to embrace them and change.
- You only have to shoot the messenger once to kill the desire of anyone to bring you bad news. Humans are hardwired to avoid threats. The risk assessments we make don’t require the threat to exist 100% of the time. If there’s a chance it may be there, that’s enough to alter behavior.
- No matter how good you are, it’s unlikely that you can always make better decisions than the combined life experiences of your whole team. If you can, you’ve hired poorly.
Being able to hear truth when you’re in the position of power starts with making the declaration that you’re open to it but ends with your showing that you’re open to it. Respect is a two-way street. If you want to have real respect as the leader, you must respect the power and experience your team brings to the organization.