Can you handle the truth?

Posted 08.21.2008

Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men So far, this week’s posts have a feedback theme. In organizational life, we are regularly compelled to ignore the age-old advice of "Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to" — and that’s a good thing. The only way we can improve as leaders is to hone in on our opportunities to improve. As my colleague Dan McCarthy points out in this humorous take, soliciting feedback sure can be a painful process when that feedback doesn’t match up with our view of ourselves.

My own personal example occurred years ago when I was in a corporate job and everyone on the senior management team was the subject of a 360 degree assessment. I’d had a pretty successful career up until then, so I was shocked to learn that the people on my team more or less, well, hated my guts. My initial response was to hibernate for a couple of weeks and lick my wounds. But through some really excellent coaching, I was soon encouraged to engage and talk with my raters about what I could do better. My coach encouraged me to listen for the themes in the conversations. The big one for me was that everyone on my team said I regularly made them feel like they weren’t important. My coach encouraged me to go deeper by asking the behavioral question, "What do I do that makes you feel like you’re unimportant?" I heard a number of things in response to that question but the answer that came up again and again was, "Whenever we’re in a meeting with you, you’re constantly looking at your watch. It makes us feel like you think you’ve got something better to do."

Once I quit looking at my watch during conversations, it was pretty amazing what else I started noticing and how much more I heard what others were saying. Was it the magic bullet that made me the world’s greatest leader? Um, no. I don’t think there are any magic bullets. It’s about continuous improvement through small steps — and being able to handle the truth so you can reach the next level of executive leadership.