At a meeting in a manufacturing town in the old Soviet Union, the speaker was wrapping up his presentation. The factory had once again exceeded its goals for the five year plan, “Thanks to the wisdom and inspiration of our great leader, Comrade Stalin!” The audience leaped to its feet, shaking the hall with their clapping. The applause went on for a minute. Then two minutes. After five minutes, people started looking around to see who would stop first. After ten minutes, hands sore from clapping, old white-haired Ivan sat down. Relieved, the rest of the group settled back down in their seats.
Ivan didn’t show up for work the next day. No one seemed to know what had happened to him, but no one asked, either.
I was never that kind of leader, or so I thought. At a staff cocktail party after work, my fiancee pointed out that my staff members were really very good at sucking up to me without being obvious. “Nonsense!” I told her. “They don’t need to butter me up. They know they can say anything they want to me, good or bad.” She just smiled. I then realized that, while I genuinely liked my subordinates, I had power over them, even when I didn’t use it. I could put off that raise, delay that promotion, reduce that bonus, and not realize I was doing it. And then I saw I treated my boss the same way. I always held back a little, knowing that my career depended on his good opinion.
It’s hard to manage, even when you have good information to work with. But if your staff is afraid to deliver bad news, criticize your proposals, or argue with you over a decision, you’re operating in the dark. You may have already told your staff that you want to hear open and honest communication. But your message to them consists of more than words. All it takes is a frown or a roll of the eyes to let people know that what they just said was not welcome. Even worse, a comment like, “That’s a dumb idea” will shut down all but the most self-confident employee.
I was lucky. I always had at least one staff member who realized I would always be fair (see my other blogs on Trust.) They would alert me to my blunders. Find one of those folks if you can. In addition, there are some things you could do to keep the communication lines open:
- Have someone watch your body language in meetings. They should let you know what messages you’re sending without realizing it.
- Practice neutral language to handle ideas or comments from your staff when you really don’t agree with something they’ve said. Try, “Interesting idea, Ted. I’ll give it some thought,” instead of, “No, I don’t think that will work.” Follow up with a one-on-one session with Ted to let him know where his idea fell short – if it did.
- Put criticisms in a “parking lot” for later review, and let people know you’ll go over them later. Then give yourself time to react rationally rather than emotionally.
- Learn to listen. That means hearing what people say and mean, both verbally and emotionally. Mirror what they’ve said to let them know you heard and understood it, and to be sure you really got it right.
- Give credit where it’s due. Acknowledge the person who came up with an idea or a valid criticism.
- Acknowledge your mistakes and say what you’ll do to prevent them from happening again.
- Finally, say what you mean and mean what you say. If your actions match the words the use, your employees will learn to trust you.