As a Leader, Are You Flying Blind?

Written By Randy Hall  |  Leadership 


I recently read a study done by the Corporate Executive Board that found “nearly half of executive teams lack information they need to manage effectively because employees withhold vital input out of fear the information will reflect poorly on them.”  The study went on to state that only 19% of companies always received the information they needed to make decisions even if it was negative but those companies who did create a culture with open communication had over 3 times the rate of return over a ten year period than other companies.  That’s worth working toward.

Filters are strong, even in small businesses and leaders aren’t getting the information they need to make effective decisions. And in this economic climate, they get even stronger.  It’s one of the reasons that we see incredibly bad business decisions being made by people we believed were competent leaders.  Any decision made with only the positive facts, is likely to be a bad one.

Many leaders and executives that I work with don’t believe that they are only getting part of the story.  One executive stated “My people are very honest with me.  I’ve told them that it’s okay to bring me bad news and so they do.”  It’s a statement that I’ve heard some form of from many business leaders.  In virtually every case, it only takes a few conversations with the people in the organization to learn that the leader is sadly mistaken.  They are getting the lipstick on the pig version of reality and while it might not be completely false, it’s a long way from the clear picture they need to chart the correct course for their team or business.

One of the first things I do with many of my clients is execute a cultural survey so that they can get a clear picture of the current state.  One of the dimensions that we take a look at together is open, honest communication.  It typically ranks low in struggling businesses and what is even more telling is that the executives tend to rate it much higher than the employees in the business.  If you want to create a culture where communication happens frequently and candidly and decisions are made based on reality, not some nicer version of it, you have to make sure that the behaviors you are exhibiting as a leader encourage and support that kind of environment.  Here are some things you can do to increase the level of candor in your business or on your team:

1.  Don’t shoot the messenger.

Reward, support and encourage those who bring you challenging, but accurate information.  And don’t assume that if you don’t cream at them that means you have encouraged candor.  Even a wince or a frown or an expletive under your breath tells the person that they have just ticked off the boss and in their eyes that’s rarely a good thing.  Thank them for the information.  Acknowledge that it wasn’t easy to hear but you sincerely appreciate them having the courage to share it.  Explain that you need clarity to make good decisions and that their candor helps create that.  Let them know that you need people in the business that you can trust to tell you the truth and they have just demonstrated their willingness to do that.  Reward them for being honest and they will be less fearful of doing it again in the future.

2.  Interview your people.

When you control someone’s pay, their promotions, in a lot of ways, their future, their very strong inclination is to keep you happy, at least when they are talking to you directly.  You have to dig through the human nature to get the real story.  If you suspect there’s more to the issue, and there usually is, you have to treat the conversation much like you would a job interview.  Applicants don’t want to show you their flaws in an interview but if you ask enough of the right kinds of questions you can find them.  The same is true in this situation.  Be aware that you are usually getting the slightly prettier version of reality and dig for the truth so that you can make good decisions with real information.  Ask questions like “if you could change or fix one thing about our business, what would it be” or “what’s getting in our way and keeping us from becoming more successful as a team.”  When people believe that you really want the truth, you will begin to get it.

3.  Don’t storm down from the castle and beat the villagers.

No one wants to be the person who let something slip to the boss and got her friends fired or even yelled at.  If your reaction to bad news is to go find the responsible parties and make them pay, you can count on getting mostly stories of rainbows and unicorns from your team.  People make mistakes and the leader who looks at those as a learning opportunity and pulls their team together to work on solutions, not cast blame, will earn the trust that causes them to be more comfortable with sharing difficult news.  If someone is at fault, sit them down, tell them a story of when you’ve made a big mistake and what you learned from it and ask them how this experience will cause them to do things differently in the future.  Your job is not to punish the people who make mistakes, it’s to create capability on your team because of what people learn from making them.

Your team knows things you don’t.  They are often closer to the action and to the problem.  You need their candid perspective to anticipate challenges, make course corrections and decide where to place your biggest bets.  Leading a business or a team isn’t easy, doing it with only part of the story is a recipe for disaster.  Be the leader who earns trust and creates a culture where honesty and candor are sincerely valued, not just talked about. Do that and you will create and team and a business where people speak their minds, innovate more easily and give you the information you need to chart a course for growth.

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