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If You're Not Part of the Solution...

Have you ever sat around griping about a boss, manager, or co-worker who doesn’t “get it” or acts like he or she knows it all? You’re not alone; my hand goes up, too. Once when I was serving up a hefty portion of criticism about an executive I found difficult to work with, a good friend of mine asked, “So what are you doing to contribute to the problem?”

Are you kidding? What am I doing? This wasn’t about me. It was about the other guy. Of course, I gave it some thought...about a second or two...and said, “I can't think of anything.”

My clearly misguided friend pushed a little harder, so I thought a little more. “Nope, still nothing,” I said.

“What have you done to raise this issue with him?” he asked. “Is your contribution that you just let it continue and don’t do anything to change it?”

Ouch! That struck a nerve. He was right. By keeping my mouth shut and not raising the issue, I was part of the problem! I’ve never been one not to speak up or show much deference to position or status; however, being a victim had its benefits. I could just complain and justify to myself how the executive was getting in the way and make him responsible for things not getting done. As the victim, I was off the hook!

Regardless of who we are, or what titles show up on our business cards, we all need feedback. No one is immune. Leaders need to be told when they’re pulling too hard on the reigns and when they need to loosen up. Bad decisions need to be challenged. New ideas need to be expressed. Leaders sometimes need to be told that they’ve messed up. And they do mess up. We all do.

Whether we’re a formal leader with a title, or an individual contributor, we need to be informed and always learning. If we expect that to happen, we need to make it easy for people to say what’s on their minds. Leaders who dig communication moats around themselves typically don’t ask for other opinions and make it hard for others to give them authentic feedback. It’s common for those lower on the corporate food chain to feel like they have less right to say anything to leaders. Unless a leader constantly pushes for alternative views, relinquishes decision authority, or rewards people who challenge them, they’ll be hard-pressed to get useful feedback.

Leaders can also learn a lot by encouraging employees to spread their wings and try out their own ideas. I learned this when an employee I thought I was helping turned to me and said, “Is it okay if we just try it our own way?” I was so deep into my instructions that it caught me off-guard. It suddenly hit me that he wasn’t asking for me to tell him how to do it. He just wanted to bounce his own ideas off me and get some feedback. I appreciate that he wasn’t afraid to put the brakes on and get me to stop and listen. He had some great ideas and we both learned from his experiment.

For most, the tough part about feedback is being the one to speak up and give it, especially when it’s to a boss. However, if every time a leader speaks we simply clam up or become a yes-man or -woman, we aren’t helping anyone. Leaders, including CEOs, need business-committed employees who are strong enough to discuss anything needing to be discussed, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative. Competent and confident employees aren’t afraid to do that.

Challenging someone in the hierarchy doesn’t have to be a career-ending move. Sure it’s tough, but if it’s done with a sincere intent to help—not to slam the person—he or she is more likely to want to listen. And leave the arguing behind. If we want to be helpful, we can’t be stuck on winning the debate. We have to be willing to accept that the other person may disagree with us or simply want to do something else.

So, regardless of your position in the organization, think about the roles you play. Are you a victim? Are you a leader who builds a moat around oneself? Do you raise the tough issues to make a positive difference? Or, do you make it easy for people to speak their minds? In other words: are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?

Trying It on for Fit

Two of the most influential causes for stifling communications are seeing others as “above” or “below” oneself and communicating that to them through words and actions. Break out of this by trying to look at others as you would if you were working side by side doing hard physical labor for a local charity. Consider how you would speak to and interact with the other person under these circumstances.

Prepare ahead of the conversation and practice presenting, proposing, suggesting, and challenging in a way that communicates a sincere desire to help. Anticipate objections and other reactions and prepare to respond effectively with a goal of leaving the conversation with understanding and good feelings.

©2011 Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Herring Kevin Herring is founder and president of Ascent Management Consulting (www.ascentmgt.com).  He is coauthor of Practical Guide for Internal Consultants.  Contact him at: kevinh@ascentmgt.com