My wife and I were traveling in the days before GPS, when you looked a map to get your directions or maybe a “Trip-Tik” from AAA. If you’ve been on your route before, it was much easier because you would remember the landmarks for roads and turns you need to make. We’d been on this route before, I was cruising along anxious to get to our destination. Suddenly our route didn’t look familiar. The further along I drove, the more anxious I became that I missed something. When I finally asked my wife about our route, she said, “you used to turn back there, but I assumed you knew where you were going.” Clearly it was my fault, I was driving, and even more my fault because I haven’t always received suggestions for directions well.

In any organization, leaders need to be told when they are going the wrong direction or missed a turn. But getting that message to them isn’t always easy. As a leader, when you don’t hear what you need to hear, you are flying blind, which is risky.

Who has the information? The employees who are closest to where the work is getting done. It seems simple, but there are some common problems to them being heard.

Filtering – Information employees share is often filtered as it goes up the ladder by layers of leaders, who each decide to what to share or not share.

Too smart – You may have worked for a leader who thinks they have all the answers, they know it all because they are the smartest person in the room. Why would you tell them anything?

Receptivity – Some leaders aren’t receptive to hearing news that doesn’t meet with their expectations. I’ve watched leaders “shoot the messenger” instead of focusing on the message. If you keep shooting messengers, no one will want to deliver the message.

What can leaders do to get the information they need?

Whenever possible, cut through as many layers of leadership as possible and talk directly to the people who are closer to the work.

Let people know you want to be told the truth; you don’t want it to be “sugar coated.”

I’ve used a simple question which always generates responses from employees. The question is:

“Tell me something you think I don’t want to hear”

If you use this question, you’ll be sending a strong message you are ready to hear “bad news.” Expect a little hesitation after you ask, because they aren’t used to being asked to share bad news. Keep silent and someone will finally share “bad news” or something that is uncomfortable to hear.

Once they share, the responsibility shifts to you to receive it well.

Do not be defensive.

Do not explain why.

Do not debate them.

The simplest response for you is “thank you for sharing.”

If you receive the first person well, the doors will open and more will pour out. You might even be surprised how candid they will become. It’ll be hard and uncomfortable. Suck it up. They’re scared more than you of what might happen to them for sharing.

Once you’ve heard bad news, you need to do something with it. Whatever you do, don’t forget to share it with those who told you what you needed to hear. If you don’t, you won’t hear what you need to hear in the future.

The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. John 19:35

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