You feel pretty good. Your latest proposal was voted in unanimously by your subordinates at the meeting this morning. You are excited how everyone seems to be so on board with your agenda these days. So different than it was when you first started. Back then, there was more arguing and stalling. Thank goodness you put a stop to that nonsense!
Now everyone seems to accept your ideas with little or no commentary. It’s as if everything you say is perfect. You always knew it was, but it’s nice to know the others see it now, too.
Uh-oh…Do you see the problem here? Someone has lost touch with reality!
Leaders that believe they are the only one with good ideas are in danger of losing the respect and engagement of their team. Clearly it can be challenging when there is a lot of discussion on every topic. But this is not nearly as challenging as when all the discussion stops. When this happens, a leader might have lost his team already.
Questioning the Unanimous Agreement
If you asked for a vote and it was unanimous, you need to back up and ask yourself some questions:
- Did you really make room for differing opinions?
- In general, is it “safe” to disagree with you?
- When someone voices a difference of opinion on a topic that you are obviously passionate about, what does your body language say to him or her?
- How do your words sound and in what tone when you present your ideas?
- How do you know, meaning, have you asked your team, with total safety to respond candidly?
The End of Honest Feedback is Dangerous for Leaders
If you are a new boss, you’d better quickly get used to the fact you will NEVER get totally honest responses from all of your direct reports. It’s true whether you are the boss as in the Chair of the Board of Directors, the new CEO, the new C-whatever or the new supervisor of five of your former peers.
If you disagree with this idea, I might start to think that a.) You are terribly naïve, or b.) you are terribly narcissistic. (Sorry if that’s a bit harsh.)
The truth is that there are some people (and in some organizations, most people) who are intimidated by, afraid of or totally mistrusting of the person in power.
Yes, we could speculate ad nauseum why. From an abusive authority figure in early life to a tyrannical former boss or even just an ingrained tenuousness around anyone in authority, there could be any number of reasons why. Frankly, it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that the leader is clear that his or her presence inherently stifles honest feedback.
Further complicating the issue, many direct reports think heaping endless praise on the boss is the pathway to success. Because of this, I must caution you also not to believe sycophantic praise. Remember the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? If you don’t, here’s a cheat sheet:
Han’s Christian Andersen: The Emperor’s New Clothes
As a leader, you don’t want to parade about town in your birthday suit because you believed what your subjects told you. In other words, never believe your press or the adulations of those around you. You could end up with your version of a naked parade if you do!
The Professional Presence Audit
One way to get closer to whether you intimidate those who disagree with you is something I call a “Professional Presence Audit.” Here is how it works: A client hires me to walk her or him through a videotaped process of examining how they present themselves to others when under fire. We then take the time to review the video together, first detailing what works and then addressing what doesn’t. Now that we know what works and what doesn’t, we have a starting point on which to discover how to improve my client’s behavior in these situations.
Seeing is believing, particularly in this exercise. Many of my clients tell me afterward that they were shocked at their responses. Others were surprised how their facial expressions, including their eyebrows and frown lines, seemed to convey so much. Others were surprised how their tone came across. Many of them made drastic changes in how they presented themselves following the audit—and all for the better of their teams.
However, you find out how you come across, find a way to do so. Otherwise, you stand a good chance of getting caught stark naked when in fact you thought you were wearing the finest of outfits.
Isn’t it time you knew how you presented yourself?