A CEO once told me, “I don’t want my team just blowing sunshine at me all the time!” What she meant was that she wanted her leadership team to bring bad news to her early enough to do something about it. Trouble is, many executives squash bad news, either intentionally or unintentionally, by failing to encourage honest feedback or by punishing those who dare give it. The result? Poor business decisions due to narrow-minded perspectives.
Surrounding oneself with only “yes men” or “yes women” can ruin a business. The demise of Merrill Lynch during the recent great recession is an example of a CEO who fired or refused to talk to executives in the firm who disagreed with his strategy. (See this NY Times article.) Merrill was acquired by Bank of America in 2008, in a shotgun marriage that ended a century-long existence of a once-venerated brokerage firm.
Here are six ways you can encourage feedback and get bad news from your team:
1. Admit your mistakes. Nothing is better than admitting your own mistakes to create an open and honest culture in your company. When the boss admits her mistakes, she makes it OK for others to do so also. Hold yourself accountable to appropriate metrics, such as sales calls, and publicly acknowledge when you don’t meet them. If you blow a client meeting, admit it humbly.
2. Actively seek feedback. Ask open and honest questions in meetings and then listen more than you talk. Say, “I’d like to hear both pros and cons to this idea. You won’t hurt my feelings if you have something bad to say.” And mean it. Actively listen to each brave soul, acknowledging the contribution. Your position as boss connotes power over others, causing your team to be cautious of making you mad. So, encourage your team to speak up.
3. Control your emotions when receiving feedback. Be hyper-aware of your body language and facial expressions when you receive feedback. Your team knows “that look” when you are exasperated, so keep a poker face. And, killing the messenger by getting angry, cynical or mocking will ensure that person will never give you honest feedback again. Nor will anyone else who observed the encounter.
4. Thank people for feedback. Sincerely express gratitude for opinions and observations you receive from your team. You can say, “Thank you for that suggestion. I really appreciate your courage in speaking up.” Keep an open mind and consider, if only for a moment, the merit of what is offered. Then, calmly explain your decision to either incorporate the feedback or deny it. Either way will encourage the person to offer feedback in the future.
5. Spend time with the troops. Back in the 80’s, Tom Peters advocated the use of MBWA or Management By Wandering Around (1982, p. 122). This is still a good practice. Executives who spend time walking around and talking to people who do not report directly to them always learn something interesting. In contrast to sitting behind closed doors in an office or conference room, face time with the troops opens up communication, shows your vulnerability and makes you real to the people who do the work. People are more apt to provide feedback to someone who appears emotionally and physically accessible.
6. Hire an executive coach. One of the jobs of an executive coach is to help you seek feedback and learn more about yourself – your personality, your strengths & weaknesses, your mental models and habitual emotional reactions. A coach will help you understand how and why others react to you and you to them. If you think that your team is “blowing you sunshine” all the time, consider hiring a coach. It’s probably time to look at yourself with the help of a trusted advisor.
Peters, T. J. & Waterman, R.H. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York: Warner Books.
Kristin Robertson, CEO of Brio Leadership, is dedicated to increasing the number of employees who are excited to go to work on Monday mornings. Services include executive coaching, leadership development classes and company culture consulting. Don’t forget to get a copy of Kristin Robertson’s new book, Your Company Culture Ecosystem, available on Amazon.
From the desk of