You have a great relationship with the people you supervise and encourage them to come to you with any issues that need your attention. But are you hearing everything you need to hear – especially the bad news? According to a Fast Company article called How to get bad news to the top, humans are programmed to prefer optimistic information. We don’t like sharing the bad news, and we don’t like hearing it.
CEOs may be among the most out-of-touch. A recent study by Fred Adair, a Boston-based partner at Heidrick & Struggles, showed a sharp gap between how CEOs rate the effectiveness of their management teams and how the management teams rate themselves. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the team doesn’t share its true perceptions with the boss. Because the CEO isn’t fully aware of the team’s status, she cannot help the team work more effectively together, and can even make the situation worse.
Adair recommends engaging a coach to facilitate CEO/team openness. What else can you do to make sure that people bring all relevant information to you, not just the good news?
Pay attention to subtle signs. Because of our human preference to expect the best, we can ignore signals that things aren’t quite right. Missing data, a tense vibe in the office or less frequent communication can be harbingers of trouble on the way. These signals are your cue to gather more information, not to sit idly by.
Don’t shoot the messenger. It only takes once, and you’ll find that people grace your doorstep only when there’s happy stuff to report. Even if you succeed at keeping your mouth shut, are you showing your anger nonverbally? That can be almost as damaging as a screaming fit.
Keep an open door, and walk through it. Open doors are great, but getting out among the team is even more effective.
Encourage civil disagreement. If your team isn’t comfortable disagreeing with each other, they certainly won’t openly disagree with you. Create and nurture a culture where the team debates and challenges one another – and you – respectfully.
Look and listen. Nonverbal clues can be powerful, so take notice. Does their body language match their words? If not, follow up with open-ended questions to find out what is really on their minds.
Don’t jump to conclusions. It will take time to unravel the full truth, so don’t immediately react to the initial feedback. Once you’ve collected the necessary information, ask your team for suggestions about next steps, rather than pronouncing your conclusions from the executive suite.
Take a break from talking. Sometime it takes a radical step to get information flowing. If you usually do a lot of talking in meetings, stop. Tell your team that for the next day (or week or other timeframe that is workable) you won’t be talking, only listening. Then follow through – only speaking when it is absolutely necessary. There’s nothing like a few moments of uncomfortable silence to get folks sharing their thoughts.
You may assume that bad news travels fast, and you don’t have to take any extraordinary measures to uncover it. Perhaps that’s true for the most dramatic bad news, but it certainly isn’t for the pervasive, insidious issues that can undermine any team’s effectiveness. Don’t be the last one to know that there’s a bad moon rising.
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