You can’t expect people to be open with you, if you’re not open with them first.
You’re at a swimming pool. The water looks nice. It’s not quite a warm enough day… But it’s almost summer so why not jump in?
You want others to join you in the pool (it’s more fun that way!). So you wander around and ask each of the pool loungers: “Hey, care to jump in the pool with me? The water looks warm…”
Think anyone jumps in? Especially, if you’re not in the pool yourself?
I view the process of getting honest feedback from employees the same way. If you want everyone in your company to be open and honest with you — if you want everyone to jump into that swimming pool with you — you’ve got to take the first dive.
I call this “going first” as a leader. You must take the first step to show it’s safe to speak up (particularly given that fear plays such a large role in why employees don’t give feedback). You must be forthcoming and candid with your employees first, as a leader. You can’t expect someone else to do something if you don’t do it yourself first.
Here are a few ways to “go first” as a leader and jump into that swimming pool to create a safe environment for employees to speak up…
Share what you’re struggling with.
One of the best ways to “go first” is by sharing something that you’re struggling with. If this makes you feel a little vulnerable as a leader… that’s a good thing! You’re modeling the honesty that you’re similarly looking for from an employee. As a result, you diffuse some of the anxiety and fear an employee may have about offering a critical opinion. An employee may now think, “Well if she, my manager, is struggling with this, then I guess it’s okay to share this…”
Try saying this: “I’m struggling with…” or “Can you help me understand something that I’m having trouble grasping?” or “Hey, I don’t have all the answers…”
Play devil’s advocate with your own opinion.
Another way to “go first” as a leader is to challenge your own opinion in front of your team. The next time you’re explaining a new idea, pose an opposing viewpoint to it yourself, and then ask for feedback. By playing devil’s advocate with your own opinion, you invite others to give dissenting viewpoints. When you’re a contrarian to your own ideas, you give your team permission to be contrarian too.
Try saying this: “I could also take a devil’s advocate point-of-view and say ___. What do you think?” or “Another way to look at it is ____. Would you agree or disagree?”
Commend vulnerability when you see it.
“Going first” as a leader also means to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see. If you want meaningful, honest feedback to be given to you more often, be sure to publicly recognize it when you do see it. A CEO who is a Know Your Team customer here in Chicago makes a point to do this every month during her company all-hands meeting. She’ll publicly commend an employee for her vulnerability, and say, “Thank you for sharing an opinion that might not be popular. It’s important.” When you do this, you set the expectation that you want to hear frank, non-sugar-coated information in the future.
Try saying this: “That’s a great thought — your honesty is appreciated and important to the team…” or “I’m so glad you’re disagreeing with me. It’s helping me understand a new perspective…” or “Thank you for bringing that up. I’m sure that was not an easy thing to share, so I value you doing that.”
As a leader, it’s your job is to make your employees feel as safe as possible to speak up. You can’t sit back and ask other people to be candid and forthcoming without doing it yourself first.
Want others to jump into the pool of honesty and openness? Go first.