If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that everything rises and falls on leadership. Your ability to make a difference or make a mess in your industry depends on how well you can lead and take responsibility for your actions. The best leaders know how to create space for honest feedback. It is your responsibility – and in your best interests – as a leader to set the tone and create space for truth-telling that fosters positive outcomes for everyone.
While COVID-19, racial tensions, election fallout, distance learning, lockdowns, mandates, and other atrocities continue hijacking our attention, we’re just trying our best, right? It was hard enough to lead your team and organization before all of this chaos. How about now? Everything is compounded and that takes a significant toll on leaders and employees alike.
So, what may be keeping your team from telling you exactly what’s going on and how they’re doing? What projects or milestones are at risk? What questions are they not asking you? What are they worried about when it comes to work and life? Employees in your organization are concerned about their mental health, their loved ones, job security, physical health, social disruption, and a myriad of other challenges.
As a leader, even in times of chaos and uncertainty, you’re still responsible for profits, stock prices, shareholders, customer satisfaction and retention, employee engagement and retention, and KPIs. You’re also worried about many of the same life questions and concerns as your employees are worried about: your loved ones, your livelihood, your future, and many other details.
When you look at that mix of all of the different worries those in your organization are focused on, it’s no wonder why they may not be sharing these concerns with you. Your employees don’t want to stress you out, they don’t want to make life harder for you, and they’re also just barely hanging on in many situations right now. They don’t want to lose their job, be seen as weak, have a target on their back, or for some, even admit they have a weakness. You have a responsibility as leader of your company to create the space for people to give it to you straight.
“But Lisa, I’m the leader – people should know that it’s okay to tell me when something’s wrong!” I get it, but that’s just not how it works. People know there are consequences to breaking the written and unstated rules of the organization. People know that certain behaviors and certain personalities get promoted faster on your team, in your organization, or your company, and they’re better set up for success.
You may be well-intended and thinking you have this wonderful open door leadership at hand with everyone working for you, but that’s just not reality. Besides my own experience, I can tell you multiple instances from coaching tech executives over the last several weeks where I’ve heard them tell me, “I had no idea my team member was struggling like that! Why didn’t they tell me sooner?”
When I was a newer leader in tech, I wasn’t receiving affirmation from my boss for my work impact or results. When it comes to recognition for a job well done, some people like money, some people like quality time, some people like words of affirmation, some people like pats on the back, high-fives, and public recognition. For myself, I’m motivated by words of affirmation, “Hey, Lisa, great job on that presentation.” “Lisa, the transformation I experienced while working with you has been phenomenal.” You get the picture.
I’ll never forget leading a 12-person project team and I knew something was ‘off’. We had all been working really hard. Truth be told, we were exhausted and there was more to do. I was feeling low energy, low appreciation, and low motivation to keep pushing forward. I thought I was running a team meeting and my intention was a team meeting, but unconsciously, I was looking for validation and confirmation of what we were doing. I remember giving a status update on where we were on all things, looking at the project plan, talking about risks, and then wrapping up the meeting saying, “We’re doing really great guys. I’m so proud of the work we’re doing. This is all awesome.”
But then, I made a big mistake as a leader. I closed the meeting by asking an open-ended question believing I would hear words of affirmation. I said to the team, “What do you guys think?” There was a woman on the team who had confidence in herself, felt trust in our working relationship, and the courage to speak up in that moment and answer my question honestly. She said, “Lisa, I agree with you on X, Y, and Z, and on points one, two and three, and I think there’s something that you might not be seeing.” Her response opened my eyes to see her perspective – and that wouldn’t have happened without me asking an open-ended question. I would have missed that inclusive moment if I didn’t honestly invite my team’s perspective.
I’d love to say I welcomed her perspective with open arms… but I didn’t. I got really pissed off. I don’t think I showed my anger nearly as much as I felt it inside. My neck got red, my heart started beating fast, and I had the wherewithal and the emotional awareness to pause while agitated and take a couple of deep breaths. I said, “Thank you for that. I’m realizing now, I’m not really open for feedback right now. I’d like to circle back with you and have this conversation, but right now I can tell I’m not open.”
Now, I don’t know what happened for me at that moment, except that my head and my heart aligned. I knew I had to respect her and welcome her voice, and I also knew I wasn’t open. It was an incredibly uncomfortable situation. I was embarrassed and pissed off at the time. We ended the meeting as graciously as we could, went our separate ways, and just like in every other situation, the ‘chatter’ started. Texting, chatting, messages, phone calls, looks of judgment and concern.
Someone caught up with me as I was walking, and they said, “Can you believe she said that?! How disrespectful!” I looked at them and I said, “I don’t think that was disrespectful. I think I was disrespectful by asking a question I wasn’t open to hearing answered. She answered the question. I’m so grateful she did, because now I can learn something about this, and I think it’s going to set a good tone for the team.”
The person was astounded at what I said because I think they wanted to snuggle up with the leader, and make someone else the bad guy. That didn’t happen because I was the person who was wrong. What I didn’t realize at the time was that other people were going up to the other woman who spoke up and saying things like, “I’m so worried about you. How can I protect you? What do you need from me? How can I help you with Lisa?” And she said, “You know, I trust Lisa. She asked for feedback.” That also set the tone for them. It telegraphed the message, “We’re not going to be back talking about people or each other. We’re not going to have an us-versus-them splitting our team. Lisa and this person respect and trust each other, even in moments of tension, even in conflict.”
That is what changed the dynamic of our team. It changed how I showed up as a leader, and it also gave her the space to share her voice and conviction and stand in her own power and truth. How many people get shut down when you shut them down, and then these great innovations, ideas, problem solving, don’t happen because it’s not safe. This is happening every day in tech companies all over the world, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can change that reality right now by getting really clear on the right questions at the right time, and holding space for things to be a little bit funky and uncomfortable with your team to stress-test your trust and communication.
Dude, you have to be self-aware. You have to create that space. Is there a customer tapeout that’s pending? That’s an invitation for you to show you’re supporting your team in that moment. Ask them support-focused questions like “What’s at risk? What do you need from me? How confident are you that this is going to happen? What can we do to better support you?”
What about your sales team trying to pull in their numbers and ring that bell? How often are they really telling you – and what are they really telling you? Are they just dealing with it on their own until it becomes a crisis because it doesn’t feel safe to tell you now? If your team isn’t telling you the truth, that’s on you first. You need to create the space for them to tell you, and then manage your team in a way that allows them with dignity, grace, respect, and support, to get that job done.
First, be clear on your intention and the question you’re asking. Don’t do what I did and look for some sort of false praise. Be prepared to let people tell you what they think, and then welcome it. Then, ask the right questions. Take a couple minutes and form in your mind what question you really need the answer to right now, even if you may not like what you’ll hear. Finally, look back in your past for moments when people have given it to you straight.
I believe you wouldn’t be in leadership unless you wanted to make an impact. You wouldn’t be in leadership if you didn’t truly care about the people on your team getting good results. When you create the space and invitation for your team to give you their honest feedback, you will see your team’s productivity increase. You will see employee engagement and loyalty go up. You will watch your customer retention rates improve and more new customers sign on with your organization. Your sales numbers will increase because your team is stronger with better trust in place. That’s what leadership is today. What’s one thing you’re going to do today to open that up for yourself? You may not know what that looks like or where to start. That’s why I’m here. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders in tech just like yourself over the past 20+ years. If you’re wanting support to create a more honest, inviting conversation for your team, go to rebootwithlisa.com to book a time for us to connect.