There are five simple words that can spell doom for a leader: “If I had only known!” These are the words you utter right after a major client cancels a contract, a customer stops ordering or an error occurs that will cost you thousands of dollars. That’s why the best leaders and the most competent managers thrive on employee feedback. Why don’t more of us go out of our way to encourage quick and candid feedback? Our first response to this question is typically focused on our team. We aren’t convinced that they really get the big picture, we don’t want them to get distracted from their current work assignments or we simply don’t value their opinions. The best trusted advisers will tell you that it’s not the leader’s associates, but the leader’s perspective that is the problem. If a leader isn’t careful, he or she can begin to believe they alone know what’s best. No one else could possibly have all the necessary information to make a decision like they do, and no one has the company or the customers’ best interests at heart like they do. This is the kind of thinking that leads to mediocrity at best and outright failure at worst. Consider the examples where feedback wasn’t encouraged and the results were troublesome: the Toyota accelerator problem or the rollout of the national health care website, for example. In each situation someone possessed very important information but was not encouraged to share it. Among the most successful working professionals there is one constant truth: Trust between leaders and their associates is built upon a transparency that reflects a freedom to speak and to be heard. A corporate culture of harm, where listening to employees isn’t valued, impacts business every day across America. However, it takes more than listening to get the kind of feedback an effective leader needs. Many employee surveys will tell you that they don’t believe their leader is genuinely listening most of the time. One typical employee survey may ask, “If your supervisor could improve in one area that would make a difference in your work performance, what would it be?” Among several cynical answers, a common response stood out: “Value my opinion enough to look at me and listen when I am trying to tell you something. I could save you a lot of trouble.” When the person who leads us doesn’t listen to us, we can sense it—and we don’t like it. So, how do we turn that attitude around? How do you create an environment where you are getting consistent and candid feedback? There are three essential leadership skills, without which you will always be working with half-truths and mis-information. With them, you will become proactive, anticipating both challenges and opportunities before everyone else, and your reputation as a leader who develops followers will soar.
Stop, Drop and Listen
When an associate is speaking with you, do not multitask. Stop whatever you are doing and listen. A director in a major urban hospital was accused of frequently checking his email and text messages while meeting with his team. He agreed for one week to keep the phone in his pocket or on the desk, look directly at his associates and simply listen. The results within a week were staggering. Countless team members commented on how much they appreciated his new behavior. But, more importantly, one associate who is usually reticent to speak told him of an impending problem that would have been catastrophic for the hospital. Merely giving his undivided attention proved invaluable to his business.
Some young managers are often wrong but never in doubt. In fact, many believe that if they don’t act like they have the answer their employees will lose respect for them. This thought process is backward: pretending to have all the answers is the chief cause of loss of respect. If you are prone to snap judgments and haven’t disciplined your mind to routinely suspend judgment, then you will assess, judge and determine your response without getting all the feedback. And you might be right 75 percent of the time, but the 25 percent of the time that you jumped to a conclusion could cost you your career. When you are getting feedback from a team member, learn to hold back on your first response and make no judgment until you have exhausted your conversation with this associate.
Rarely will an employee reveal every fact to you right off the bat. As the leader, it is your job to draw out the other person’s thoughts. Suspend judgment and ask questions to search deeper for what the person is trying to convey. Ask questions such as: How do you mean that? Can you give me an example? Why is this important? How will this affect us? Which do you think will solicit more feedback—a statement or a question? That’s what CEO and president of General Motors John F. Smith did. He took on the most significant reorganization in the company’s history. He succeeded in engendering this practice of listening among the management team, and the results were that GM went from near bankruptcy to a profit. Smith concluded, “…good things happen when you pay attention!” Chances are, right now your associates have information you need to hear. Practice these three skills consistently, and the trust and feedback you gain could make the difference in your career.