There are five simple words that can spell doom for a leader — “If I had only known!” These are the words a person utters right after a major client cancels a contract, a customer stops ordering or an error occurs that will cost the business owner thousands out of his own pocket. That’s why the best leaders and the most competent managers thrive on employee feedback!
So 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, or we simply don’t value their opinion. But the best trusted advisors say it’s not the leader’s associates but rather the leader’s perspective that is the problem.
If a leader isn’t careful, he can begin to believe that he, alone, knows what’s best. No one else could possible have all the necessary information for a decision like he does, and no one has the company’s or the customers’ best interest at heart like he does. And this is the kind of thinking that leads to mediocrity at best and outright failure at worst.
Just think about the examples where feedback wasn’t encouraged and the results were troublesome: the Toyota accelerator problem or the rollout of the national healthcare 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.
But it takes more than listening to get the kind of feedback an effective leader needs. Many employee surveys report the employees don’t believe their leader is genuinely listening most of the time.
How we do we turn that attitude around? How do we create an environment where we are getting consistent and candid feedback? There are three leadership skills that are essential. Without them, a leader will always be working with half-truths and misinformation. With them, that same leader will become proactive, anticipating both challenges and opportunities before everyone else — and that person’s reputation as a leader who develops followers will soar.
Essential Leadership Skills to Encourage Feedback
Chances are very good that right now your associates have information you need to hear. Practice these three skills constantly and the trust and feedback you gain could make the difference in your career.
1. STOP, DROP, AND LISTEN
When an associate is talking with you, don’t be multitasking. 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 and look right at his associate and just listen. The results were staggering. Countless team members commented on how much they appreciated his new behavior. But, more importantly, one associate who is usually reticent to share much told him of an impending problem that would have been catastrophic for the hospital. Merely giving his undivided attention proved invaluable to the director’s business.
2. SUSPEND JUDGEMENT
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 not being respected.
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.
3. SEACH DEEPER
Rarely will an employee reveal everything to you about something right off the bat. As the leader, it is your job to bring out what the other person is thinking. Suspend judgment and ask questions to search deeper for what the person is trying to convey: 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 get you more feedback — a statement you make that ends in a period or one that ends in a question mark?
Undertaking the most significant reorganization in the company’s history, John F. Smith, CEO and president of General Motors, 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!”
Barry Banther, author of A Leader’s Gift: How to Earn the Right to be Followed, is founder and CEO of Banther Consulting. With decades of experience as a business leader and corporate executive, he has become a trusted advisor, leadership speaker and trainer for Fortune 100 companies like Pfizer and Rockwell as well as mid-sized to large, family-owned businesses across America.