Sure, we say we want it. Honesty, that is, but do we really? If we’re in charge, how do the rest in the organization feel about our willingness to invite input? If our staff are confronted by a superior with the question “Do I look fat in these pants,” is honesty an answer they would be brave enough to offer? More importantly, is honesty the answer the person asking the question really wants? Whether asked about our fashion sense or assessment of an aspect of our work lives, how confident are we that the powers that be want to hear the truth?
The 1992 blockbuster, A Few Good Men, made the words, “You can’t handle the truth” famous. It’s been parodied in other shows like Seinfeld and has become its own meme. We think we want the truth, but our inner, tender egos are hiding from the harsh reality a character like Jack Nicholson’s is offering. In the pivotal court room scene where Nicholson is being questioned by Tom Cruise’s character, Nicholson explodes. “The truth. You can’t handle the truth…” Deep down our fragile feelings flee the truth like cockroaches from a flashlight. We’re scared of it. It hurts. The truth feels like an attack. Feedback represents a form of truth coming to us from the outside. Receiving feedback is one of the tougher challenges with which we’re confronted. Feedback represents information that we’re off track. We’re not where we want to be. It’s an indication of deficiency with us. In us.
Validation is miles away from honesty. They live in different postal codes. Validation is comforting. It’s the warm and fuzzy feeling of draping your favorite blanket around you that tells you you’re perfect just the way that you are. Validation says you don’t need to change a thing. You’re all that and a bag of chips. Honesty, on the other hand, suggests the opposite. It’s pulling that favorite blanket off rudely, leaving you exposed and cold. You are hit with the brisk breeze of feedback and left with knowledge that you are lacking.
Which do you believe: the truth will set you free or the truth hurts? Is it possible that both can simultaneously be true? Can it be that truth can be both painful and beneficial?
What is the benefit of being better at absorbing feedback? Those that can not just hear it but act on it give themselves a chance at improvement. Getting better at something, learning, depends on decreasing the distance between where one is and where one wants to go. Facing feedback facilitates progress. We can’t improve if we’re not open to changing something. Deep down we realize that improvement is impossible without feedback. Nonetheless our actions are all too often inconsistent. We talk like we’re open to and welcome feedback, but do we, really?
If we’re a leader, facing feedback is even more complicated. Even if we’re able to overcome our built in bias to discount information that doesn’t make us feel good, we’re less likely to be getting accurate information in the first place. Supposedly, it’s lonely at the top. I’ll let you know for sure when I get there. Getting accurate information is essential to making good decisions. Your decisions as a leader are only as good as the information you’re able to receive. The information that will make its way to you is driven in part by the trust others have in you. In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni writes, “Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another.”
Psychologist, Adam Grant, wrote in a recent LinkedIn post, “The goal is not to be comfortable. It’s to create a climate where people can speak up without fear. Psychological safety begins with admitting our own mistakes and welcoming criticism from others.”
We say we want input. We want to hear from the front lines. But do we? Really? Are our actions consistent with our words? Are we actively spending time in the trenches with our front line staff? Are we seeing what they’re seeing, hearing what they’re hearing, and feeling what they’re feeling? If we say we’re open to feedback but don’t take actions to support that we’re likely damping the small spark of suggestion well before it makes its way to us.
Professor Oren Harari consolidated a number of principles General Colin Powell detailed in Powell’s book, My American Journey. Lesson Two and Sixteen are crucial for leaders to consider in order to stay connected with what’s really going on in their businesses.
“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Harari builds on Powell’s lesson, writing, “If this were a litmus test, the majority of CEOs would fail. One, they build so many barriers to upward communication that the very idea of someone lower in the hierarchy looking up to the leader for help is ludicrous. Two, the corporate culture they foster often defines asking for help as weakness or failure, so people cover up their gaps, and the organization suffers accordingly. Real leaders make themselves accessible and available. They show concern for the efforts and challenges faced by underlings—even as they demand high standards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment where problem analysis replaces blame.”
The more levels in an organization, the greater the imbalance of information between the bottom and the top. Moreover, the more layers, the less likely the bottom will make the effort to try to communicate what’s being seen in the real world. Are there levels in your business where good ideas go to die? Are staff seeing things and trying to communicate them just to see them stuck somewhere in the middle? Leaders should default to the belief Brandon Webb and John David Mann write about in “Total Focus”, “When people don’t tell you what you’re doing wrong, it means they’ve given up on you.” Silence isn’t a strength when it comes to feedback. No news is definitely not good news. It’s the opposite.
If you’re a leader, do staff believe they can safely communicate constructive concerns to you? If you’re a leader, what’s your source of information for decision making? Are you deciding on data? Is your use of data complimented with conversations with frontline staff?
A key differentiator between successful and struggling individuals and businesses is the ability to not just handle the truth but to proactively seek it out. Coachability at its core is the ability to be receptive to feedback. E. Lockhart writes in We Were Liars, “See the world as it is, not as you wish it would be.” In our personal lives, if we want to improve our health, we need to know what we’re weighing today, what our body composition is, what we’re eating today, what exercise we’re getting or not, and other lifestyle habits we may have. We need to be clear about where we are at. Only then can we determine what to do in order to get where we want to go. Our strategy becomes the search for a plan that will connect the reality of where we are with the future to which we’re aspiring. Everything we then do benefits from receiving feedback to determine if we are tracking towards our intended outcome. This is the path of progress in our pursuit of any change. In short, leaders should work to not just welcome input, but proactively seek it out.
In the 2017 movie, Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, becomes Britain’s Prime Minister during the early days of WWII. He faces incredibly complex and serious circumstances. As Churchill struggles with the weight of the decision he must make, he seeks counsel. Counsel not just from colleagues or the King, but from everyday citizens. As the car in which Churchill is riding gets stuck in traffic, Churchill deftly departs the vehicle. He enters the subway system. With the help of a child, he is able to navigate the process of purchasing a ticket and is directed to a nearby platform to catch his train. The difficulty of these everyday tasks represent the separation of Churchill’s role from his citizens. There are many layers of life between the average working stiff and their leader. The opportunities for disconnect are deep.
Churchill gets on the train and finds a spot to sit. Slowly, other passengers start to recognize him and cautiously engage their Prime Minister in conversation. Churchill is able to develop rapport with one after another and asks them their thoughts on where things are. How should Britain respond to events as the war is unfolding? Should Britain seek to negotiate a peace and capitulate? Or should Britain stand up, fight, and take the battle to the Germans in France? How would the decision one way or the other affect these people in their lives at home? What sacrifices are they prepared to endure? He asks real questions and gets real answers. He doesn’t stick his wet finger in the air waiting for the winds of polls to push or pull his decision. He hasn’t had professionals pull together a focus group which will offer their input. He’s not depending on pundits to prepare his path. He seeks out perspective directly from the horse’s mouth. He is digging in, doing the work of getting a sense of where his citizens are. What are they feeling? What are they thinking? The direction he charts is fueled by the perspective of people that will be directly impacted by the decisions made.
Powell takes things one step further. Feedback from the front should be more than sought, it should carry significant credibility. Powell encourages leaders to develop deference for feedback from the front.
“The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”
Again, this is counter the culture of most corporations. Businesses built like bureaucracies littered with layers of management and process result in leaders isolated from the reality experienced by customers. Strategy set from the top down, developed in the boardroom, runs the risk of being at odds with the real world. Harari suggests, “Shift the power and the financial accountability to the folks who are bringing in the beans, not the ones who are counting or analyzing them.” A leader’s perspective can be clarified by contributions of those interacting with customers on a regular basis. Moreover, where staff see leaders seeking this information and involving themselves in the world as they experience it they will be more motivated to share their knowledge with leaders. This becomes a virtuous cycle. When staff see leaders acting on information shared from the front, more information is shared. This makes the business better.
In “The Toyota Way”, Jeffrey Liker writes, “Toyota has a decision-making principle called ‘gemba.’ Instead of depending on hierarchy, the people who are closest to what’s happening make decisions.” Toyota exemplifies the approach suggested in Harari’s sixteenth lesson. Hands-on knowledge trumps rank from the perspective of decision making. Front line workers are respected for their contributions. The top doesn’t know everything. The top depends on input from the front in order to make sound decisions. Toyota’s concept of gemba apparently comes from the Japanese phrase genchi genbutsu which translates into “go and see.” This is what Churchill did and what we can do to ensure that we’re seeing with our eyes wide open as opposed to what we want to see.
Those trying to improve opt for honesty over validation. Moreover, they aren’t content to sit idly by waiting for information to trickle up to them. They seek the undiluted reality directly from the front. In essence, if you’re not getting feedback from the front, go and look for it; and, if you are lucky enough to get some, act on it.