“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” So goes the question embedded in the fanciful world of a children’s tale and a question that hauntingly stalks most of us for the remainder of our adult journey. Not that we would admit to such for over the years, not only have we learnt how to conceal and disguise the question, we have learnt to train the mirror into giving us the answer we wish to hear. Hearing the truth? Now that is real fantasy!
For those in leadership it is a question that provides the yardstick of measurement, recognition and reputation. With so much at stake, it is the question that demands the answer, “why of course, you are”- be that true or not.
The real problem is not the question but rather the expectation surrounding the answer. Perhaps it is the blatant denial or angry response to the answer – the one at least that fails to deliver the expected – that is in need of attention. And so, the mirror, weary of abuse and fearful of being shattered, has learnt to simply reply, “why of course, you are” every time the question is asked.Honest feedback is hard to hear and often harder to give. Yet it is the lifeblood that fuels both personal development and organizational growth. Why then do so many keep asking the question yet refuse to hear any answer until they get the one that they want to hear? It happens all the time and so ‘the voice of the mirror’ learns to play by the rules and follow the script, until all authenticity and meaning is stripped away and the dance can continue undisturbed.
As a Leader, when last did you solicit and receive feedback that wasn’t what you wanted to hear or that you hadn’t anticipated? As a leadership team, when last did you invite feedback that might call into question your practice and effectiveness? Getting honest feedback is hard and don’t believe the delusion that the absence of feedback is an indication that all is well. It normally means that you are out of touch with those around you. David Novak, CEO of Yum Brands once said, “If you see people looking around in meetings, waiting for you to speak, that’s a telltale sign they aren’t being open. I want leaders who can push back. We have training programmes to encourage employees to discuss the undiscussable, even if others don’t want to hear it” (Fortune, April 20, 2009, p16)
It is the Leader’s responsibility to create the appropriate climate for honest feedback. It is the Leader who ‘gives permission’ for those in the near vicinity to say what it is they really think and feel without fear of reprisal. Others watch and note the Leader’s response and then regulate their own responses accordingly when it is their turn to be ‘the mirror’. If you don’t get feedback, if a silence greets your every invitation to share thoughts and ideas, or if the responses always seem to mirror your select ideas and thoughts…then, as a Leader, you have a problem. You have a mirror that has learnt to tell you what it is you want to hear and you are to blame, not the mirror. Leaders need to create a ‘safe place’ in which authentic feedback can be freely shared.
The use of social media can be one way to create such a safe place especially for a younger generation for whom this media represents a natural way of communication.
Astute leaders will constantly be asking themselves three questions when it comes to feedback?
1. How do I know whether I am hearing the truth?
2. What can I do to encourage open and honest dialogue?
3. What do I do with the feedback I get?
There are no easy answers to these important questions and much will be determined by the prevailing organizational culture that the leader has established. One thing the leader can do is to talk to as many employees as possible and listen to what they have to say. Intel have what they call ‘skip level meetings’ where managers meet with employees two levels down. Campbell Soup CEO, Doug Constant, regularly has lunch with groups of 12 employees at a time from across the company and asks for their opinions and perspectives on what is happening within the company.
Creating forums for everyone within the business to be able to share what it is they experience and see when it comes to the business will be necessary for not only attracting ‘Talent’ in the future, but for ensuring that you put the inherent diversity within your business to work. Leaders will need to show that they value differing opinions and know how to mediate their way through such cross-currents.
Quantum Mechanics teaches that information both informs as well as forms us. Information is the lifeblood of the organization to change, innovate, collaborate, adapt and learn. On a personal level it is the same. As a Leader you need to understand this and ensure you do all you can to create healthy information and feedback currents within your organization…and it starts with you!
Now out you go and ask someone what they think…what they really think. Be ready for a few surprises!