Five Steps to Getting the Truth Your Employees Will Never Tell You

It's strategy season and what you most need now is the truth. Here's the bad news: No one tells you the truth.
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businessman pointing at his...
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Dear Boss,

It's strategy season and what you most need now is the truth. Here's the bad news: No one tells you the truth.

This may come as a surprise. You think you're approachable, fair, and level-headed. Trust me, you're not... at least not in the minds of your people. They remember that day a few months ago when you were a mini Mount Vesuvius and erupted all over them. They remember the time you heard something you didn't like and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back toward the place where the sun never shines.

They have your verbatim comments from their last 360 degree feedback scrolling through their minds like the stock ticker in Times Square. Yes, they know the comments came from you even though HR says the survey is anonymous. They could pick out your writing style from a police line-up any day. Your anonymous comments do double duty: they provide dinner conversation and sleepless nights.

You call yourself passionate. They call you volatile. You say you like working with smart people. They say you hang with your cronies. You say you demand excellence. They say you're a perfectionist. You say you have an open door -- or maybe an open cube. They say you stuff your ears with cotton.

So when you most need the straight truth, you're left with oblique angles. People are playing each other like backboards, bouncing messages off each other or a subordinate or a consultant and hoping to get the ball to drop through your net. Each time they open their mouths, they're thinking about consequences.

So rather than articulate, they calculate. Some go silent. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear and they're happy to feed it to you: "You're right. Alex is a screw-up. And everyone else sees it too."

Maybe most frightening, those who are most likely to give you a straight shot have stopped short of 100% candor. They leave out the crucial 7%, quietly hoping you'll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not showing their whole hand. Why risk retaliation when they're not sure you're going to go for it anyway?

Before you shrug your shoulders and move on, think about the consequences for a minute:

  • Do you ever feel like you're the one who is pulling hardest on your team? Do you ever get frustrated with the team for not owning the goals that you've set? Maybe at this point, they're in the first stages of resignation.
  • Unless you're a genius and can make your company's dreams come true single-handedly - and if this is true, let me be the first to congratulate you -- you're going to need to attract and engage a team of crazy-talented people to turn the dream into a reality. You can only play the "it didn't work out with Mark because he wasn't a good fit" card so many times. Then, smart people will start to realize that maybe it's you. Good luck recruiting them then.

You're probably surprised about this. You might be tempted to forward this note to your own boss or to a colleague. But before you do, think for a second:

  • Am I getting the whole truth from those around me?
  • If not, how am I encouraging people to hold back?
  • What can I do to increase the level of candor?

Since you have the courage to ask those questions, you probably want to take action. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Choose a straight-talking person on your team and take her out for coffee. Ask her an open-ended question like, "What fact is obvious to everyone else but most people would think I miss?"
  2. If you're feeling really courageous, ask her, "What am I doing -- or not doing -- that has made people hesitant to tell me that truth?"
  3. It will be tempting to justify, explain, and defend. Don't. Take notes. Ask curious follow-up questions. Thank your team member for her honesty.
  4. Pay for the coffee.
  5. Do something immediately to apply one thing you learned from the conversation. If you want people to keep telling you the truth, please don't skip this step. If appropriate, publicize your effort to the team member who prompted the insight as a way of saying thanks.


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