I often get hired when an organization’s leaders feel stuck. They’re frustrated because they’ve been trying to create change or make progress on a crucial initiative, but the change isn’t happening or the progress is stalled. When progress isn’t being made, it’s usually because a lack of understanding or clarity has created some conglomeration of small missteps and conflict somewhere in the organization.
But these problems may not be visible to the senior leaders who have the power to act from above and shift the dynamic. And those leaders often aren’t privy to — or don’t pay attention to — sources of information that could illuminate the situation. It’s usually easier for me, as a neutral third party, to elicit all kinds of compelling information and examples of what’s going wrong that are useful to leaders, but it’s often hard for them to receive or integrate the same information themselves.
Why Leaders Don’t Know What’s Going On
As I describe in my TEDx Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It, most senior leaders haven’t worked on the frontline for many years and may not even remember their own histories very well. Or they may only remember a few crucial aspects of their histories and see everything else through their own personal lenses. Also, people with less power know that the messenger may get shot, so they may sidestep having to bring bad news to their leaders, leaving those leaders truly unaware of the actual events taking place in the organization.
This puts leaders at risk of falling into an echo chamber. They may be talking to people all the time and getting various bits of input and opinion, but they’re most likely not getting the full story or crucial details. So when they turn to their own experience for context, they think they’re being realistic in the way they look at the rest of the organization. Over time, conversation among leaders can become repetitive and they may take certain things for granted; for instance, they could all start to agree about the causes of problems and barriers and treat them in a shorthand way without looking at them deeply.
How Complaints Get Read Wrong
It’s very easy to misinterpret the communications and signals coming from outside your group. And it’s human to assume that any people outside your group who tell you about a problem are merely complaining, perhaps about something you don’t value very much. This is a reasonable mistake to make. Given that people complain whenever something doesn’t suit them, it’s easy to judge their comments as merely expressions of personal preference or distaste.
Complaints rarely come in the form of a clearly recognizable business case that shows how the issue affects the workforce, customers, brand image, or bottom line in some way. Leaders can get more relevant information from employees if they encourage them to structure their complaints and observations: Not only should they make it obvious that a particular issue is bothering them, but they should also note that it might save money, make money, help customers, or retain staff if the organization did A, B, or C.
Expand Your Point of View — Even When You Disagree
So what can you do as a leader to counteract your own tendency to overlook or dismiss crucial information from employees? Here are four steps to try.
Consciously choose to be open and curious. Let’s say you realize you don’t care about someone’s reaction or you think their input is meaningless. Rather than pushing them away or cutting them short, consider why they care about whatever they’re trying to bring to your attention. Ask them to explain both the upsides of action and the downsides of doing nothing.
Check employees’ information against your own stance on the subject. Ask yourself what you’re sure you already know, what others seem to know, and if there are any aspects that none of you have figured out yet. Compare and contrast all the points you can until you have as full and robust a picture as possible. Make sure you can now see more than you were first seeing on your own, even if you don’t agree with or accept every data point.
Plan your response, not just to be thoughtful but to experiment with changing your mind or point of view. Quiz yourself as you interact with other people: “What happens if I agree, or if I at least agree to listen? What happens if I turn away?” If you pay attention and keep practicing, you’ll get more valuable information from more people, which should be helpful to making up your own mind.
Don’t go silent and avoidant even if you really don’t like the new views or you decide to reject the new input after thoughtful consideration. It’s easy to turn away when you want to reduce your time commitment or avoid hurting someone’s feelings, but it’s more productive to explain why you’ve made your choices and to express gratitude for their input – even though you’re disagreeing with them this time around. Invite them to come back again when they have more compelling data or can provide input on another subject.
Onward and upward —