Many organizations and leaders highly espouse transparency and openness in an attempt to improve their organization’s effectiveness. Even though this may be part of what an organization portends to support, the question still persists, “Do they really want to know the truth or do they just want to hear what they want to hear?” Unfortunately, a consultant friend of mine had a poor experience with a leader who said he wanted the truth, but really didn’t.
Jill had been hired as an outside consultant to help improve an organization’s systems and processes. One day during a training class, a senior leader asked Jill if there were any processes that she felt needed the company’s attention. At first, Jill didn’t answer from her own perspective and suggested that he review the data the company had gathered from recent customer focus group meetings.
The leader let Jill’s answer slide for about an hour and then returned to pressing her for a more candid response. Finally, under pressure, Jill capitulated and told the senior leader that the company would do well to focus on their accounts payable process. (Bad idea!) Somewhat surprised, the leader asked why that was an issue for her. Jill responded that waiting 120 days to be paid for work done four months prior wasn’t very responsive. When the senior leader asked what the difficulty was, Jill explained that she was traveling weekly to various company sites around the country to teach a number of process-improvement courses, and with each trip she was accumulating a significant number of expenses associated with each trip. She explained that she could barely afford carrying the company’s expenses and that she had recently had to borrow money to pay the company’s expense. She also told him that she had attempted to address the issue with the company but had been rebuffed in her attempts. A week later, Jill’s contract with the company was canceled.
It is difficult to know when a leader is inviting you to share your view; sometimes one doesn’t know whether it is safe to do so or not. However, leaders soliciting data or “the truth” from individuals would do well to do some self-evaluation before requesting that others step up and expose what they know, but what may not be obvious to you.
Here are a number of questions that any leader might ask themselves before they solicit others to be totally candid about an issue. These questions are applicable to both personal and process issues.
Why do you want to know what you want to know?
This question should help you focus on your intent for wanting information. Hopefully, your focus centers on improving something rather than on putting a person on the spot or finding someone to blame for what you already know is happening. You must realize that if a person has any question about your motivation or their safety that they are more likely to just tell you what they think you want to hear. An individual’s willingness to talk about what needs to be improved could be a measure of the amount of trust that you have built between yourself and the individual as well as the trust in the current work setting.
Is now the time and place to bring this up?
If you are in a group setting, the individual may feel somewhat uncomfortable sharing what they know about what is not working. You are better off asking an individual for information, particularly if you suspect that what they may share may not be positive, in a private setting. If the individual is candid about an issue, you need to give them your full attention, ask questions to make sure you have understood, and thank them for their willingness to help.
Are you willing to ask questions that will provide specific examples or details about an issue?
If you expect to change or improve anything you have to know exactly what you need to address. The more specific the examples that people provide, the easier it is for you to make specific changes. Because it is often easier to speak in generalities, you have to attune your ear to hear specifics. If someone says, “Oh, things aren’t working very well around here,” you will need to ask specifically what is not working, and what “not working” looks like.
Can you remain calm and explore the other person’s perspective?
When we hear things we don’t like, don’t believe, or refuse to accept, we tend to become emotional and revert to justifying our current behavior or practice. If any of this happens, the person speaking will clam up. It is important to set aside your feelings, judgments, and perspective and explore the experience and perspective of the individual. In order to do this, it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction. Asking questions should surface verifiable evidence that supports the individual’s perspective. Without the facts, it is impossible to fix anything.
Can you avoid any form of retribution toward those who are honest with you?
If you can’t, then don’t solicit their input. We should view the feedback that others give as a gift--an opportunity to see things in a different way. This will be very difficult for those that tend to take things personally. If you really want to improve anything it is important to recognize that we frequently see things only from our point of view. That’s how we’re hard-wired. Seeing something from a different vantage point will allow you to learn something you didn’t know.
Do you have the patience and time to engage with the person?
Learning takes time and patience. If you don’t have to time, you need to take the time or the person will interpret your harried behavior as a lack of interest. This dynamic will results in less than candid responses.
Are you willing to admit that you don’t see yourself the way others see you?
This is a question that deals more with personal issues: your behavior, your leadership style, or your treatment of others. Hearing a person’s opinion that reflects negatively on you is especially difficult to hear because most of us are generally well intended. Positive intention aside, you may not understand how your behavior impacts others. It is much easier to talk about procedural or process issues that may not be working than something that you may or may not be doing. Nevertheless, being open to examining yourself from another’s perspective is a wonderful opportunity to learn something that may be too close for you to see clearly. We just don’t see ourselves the way we are seen.
Hopefully these questions will help you to assess your motivation and intention in soliciting candid and open feedback from others. Taking a moment to assess yourself and what you really want to know and why you want to know it will help you to be more deliberate and respectful toward those that have much to offer. Then, from whatever you learn, you can make the necessary adjustments and changes to get the outcome you really want.