Think You're Not Getting The Real Story? 4 Ways to Get People To Tell You The Truth
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
It’s way too easy for leaders to drift out of touch with their organizations and not hear the things they need to hear in order to keep the organization and their own career heading in the right direction. In fact, years ago, a mentor of mine told me that he believed the two biggest derailers for leaders are (1) thinking they’re infallible and (2) losing touch with what’s actually happening in their organization. Though I’ve never seen statistics supporting his contention, my own observations have certainly confirmed it anecdotally. And I’ve also noticed that the two things are deeply related: when leaders act like they’re infallible, the people around them stop telling them the truth about what’s happening. I just saw this last year, when a very senior executive in one of our client organizations was let go: she came across as so arrogant and so committed to her own perceptions that those around her simply didn’t tell her that she was losing the CEO’s confidence and that her edicts weren’t getting the needed results.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that your single best defense against failure, as a leader, is to create an environment where people will tell you the truth, day-to-day.
So, why aren’t people honest with their leaders—and how can you change that?
A few years ago, I read a really useful and insightful article in the HBR blog by Amy Gallo about how to get feedback when you’re the boss. She notes that the key reason people aren’t straight with you when you’re the boss is fear. Sadly, it’s true: when you’re the leader, you have a lot of power over people’s lives—whether or not you feel comfortable acknowledging that—and they’re going to act to protect themselves in whatever way they feel is necessary.
The only way to get the real story from people is to make it as safe as possible for them to share it with you. (By the way, this is not only true for bosses, but for spouses, friends, and children, as well.) Here are key ways to make it safe for people to tell you the truth:
Invite it. Most people won’t just come up to you and tell you hard truths. It’s too risky; they don’t know what your response will be. So, if you really want people to tell you the truth as they see it, ask them. One of my favorite lines is simply, “What do you think?” Now—and Ms. Gallo points this out in her article, as well—if you’re in a culture where people have gotten their heads handed to them for being honest, you may have to start small with this: find a few people who seem especially brave and wiling to be honest, and ask them for their opinions and insight. Then, no matter what they say.
Embrace it. This is absolutely key. If you get people to be honest with you, and then you respond in a way that makes them regret it, you’re worse off than when you started. For example, I worked with a leader recently who told his people in a senior staff meeting that he really wanted them to ‘step up to the plate with new ideas’—but then when one brave soul actually ventured a new idea, he immediately rejected it as untenable and superficial. Yikes! When you ask for honest feedback, listen carefully. Don’t disagree, defend, or explain—even if it’s hard to hear. Especially if it’s hard to hear. If you can consistently listen to people honestly disagreeing with your approach, your ideas or your behavior, all without making the person regret having shared his or her point of view, you will have made a huge step toward creating a culture where people will tell you the truth. Now, I’m not saying you have to agree with everything you hear. But if you listen first (And I mean fully listen, not just sit there stone-faced: ask questions to understand; take notes if there’s a lot of information; summarize key points to make sure you’ve got it)—if you listen first, so that the person feels heard and supported for having spoken, then you can say—“I can see your point. I have a different point of view…” and it will feel like a discussion, vs. the boss laying down the law.
Support the giver. Nothing bad can happen to the person who spoke out. The bold typeface is intentional. That’s how important this is. If someone tells you a hard truth or gives you honest feedback when you’ve invited them to do so and they’re seen to suffer negative consequences as a result (getting fired, of course, but even being treated differently—if you’re cooler toward them, or if they’re less included in conversations, or given fewer privileges or plum assignments), that’s it. No more honesty for you. If, however, someone gives you a really tough but sincere piece of feedback, or disagrees publicly with a big idea—and their relationship with you doesn’t change at all, that’s a huge signal to people that it’s actually OK to be honest with you.
Act on it. Finally, if you want people to feel that it’s really worth their while to be honest with you, change your behavior as a result of what you hear. This doesn’t have to happen all the time—often people’s feedback on an idea or a project may not be an improvement. Where it’s most important is when people are brave enough to give you feedback about your behavior. If, for instance, an employee puts his or her fate in your hands (from his/her point of view) and tells you that when you check your emails in your weekly staff meeting it’s distracting, thank the person and stop doing it.
The key thing to keep in mind is that being honest with the boss (spouse, parent, friend) is tough. What you can do is make it as easy, rewarding, and normal as possible: research has shown that people are most likely to do new behaviors when they see those new ways of acting as being easy, rewarding and normal. And that’s the essence of my suggestions above: you can make honesty easy by inviting it and embracing it; make it rewarding by supporting the giver and acting on it; and make it normal by incorporating these approaches into your day-to-day interactions. If you do these things, the people around you are much more likely to tell you the truth…and what you hear may save your career.