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(posted: April 29th, 2014)
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Leadership, Listening & Questions
Free speech in the workplace is the foundation of functional collaboration and teamwork.
Collaboration works best when people know that others, especially their leaders, take their input seriously.
Executives and other powerful leaders often think that they encourage their people to contribute. They say they are open to feedback and input, the ubiquitous "My door is always open." But still employees tend to hold back. Somehow, they think that if they speak freely they'll be ignored, or worse, reprimanded. Sometimes this is simply a matter of how the questions are worded and when they are asked, and sometimes it's a result of long-standing cultures of mistrust.
It's widely accepted that smart, confident leaders surround themselves with people who have different backgrounds, strengths, and viewpoints. In my work, though, I often see that leaders are less aware of the need for care when asking for opinions, especially from those who are not in their immediate circle, or are lower down the hierarchy.
How can we, as leaders, get our employees involved in the open, genuine exchange of ideas and opinions that is so essential to effective teamwork?
"With improved communication from the top, the atmosphere in the firm has changed, and there is a new enthusiasm for the strategic planning process, for defining partner roles more clearly, and increased buy-in for the work going forward."
~John Montgomery, Founding Partner, Montgomery Hansen LLP
One way to do that is to be open and honest yourself. When employees know that they can express an opinion or ask any question without judgment or punishment, you'll start to get real communication. Which means you'll get problems solved faster, and your perspective on issues may change
This doesn't have to be elaborate. Listening carefully, thanking people, maybe giving greater responsibility to employees who speak up honestly.
Leaders: How many of you think that you listen well, or moderately well? According to a Forbes study, humans listen at a 25% comprehension rate. But you can change your culture (or team dynamics) simply by beginning to listen. I've watched this happen with my clients. The shift to listening can be startling to subordinates, but I guarantee they will receive it well. And leaders, you will be surprised by how much of importance you will learn.
Just saying that you are open to honest feedback doesn't always make it happen. By asking the right questions you make it easier (and safer) for your people to express their concern or bring up alternate ideas.
"Is everyone ready to start this project?" or "Does anyone have any concerns they'd like to have addressed before we begin?" are two very different questions. If you are already asking questions but the response you usually get includes no eye contact, shuffling, and mumbling, (but no answers), then you are not asking the right questions. Or you are not asking your questions the right way. Make your questions open-ended requests for feedback, not requests that have only "yes" or "no" as the possible answers. This allows people room to voice an opinion.
It can be hard for leaders to open themselves up to honest opinion. It can bring criticism and negative comments as well as constructive input, and some leaders feel that entertaining critical opinions undermines their authority. While I understand their concerns, the reality is that an open exchange of ideas is almost always beneficial to the leader. It does require courage, and a leap of faith to initiate, but isn't the improved collaboration and teamwork, and profitability, worth it?
Join me for Part 2, where we'll go deeper into asking the right questions as a leadership tool and explore some suggestions on how to do it better.