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Most of us are good at self-protection, at least I know I am. Pride keeps us from letting on we don’t have the answers to everything or have life figured out. Rarely do you post on Facebook or Instagram a time when you’re a mess. We post our successes or family vacations. Yet the world wants us to be vulnerable, it’s a hot topic these days, especially for leaders. Do you know what it really means?
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, vulnerable is defined as:
1: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded
2: open to attack or damage
Now who wants to be emotionally wounded or attacked? Not me, probably not you, which is why vulnerability is not only not easy, it is hard. But it’s critical in building trust with employees. If you can be real and imperfect, people will trust you.
In my career, I found leaders rarely heard anything negative from staff or leaders below them. If the news was negative, someone would try to put a positive spin on it. No one believes leaders can handle hearing the truth. It’s Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men”, screaming “You can’t handle the truth!”
Why? A lack of trust. I’ve witnessed leaders “shoot the messenger”, while others label whomever shared true information contrary to what the leaders wanted to hear, a “complainer” or “malcontent.” Yes, it impacted their careers. I’ve had employees tell me they won’t share anything negative because they fear retaliation, even though they couldn’t give an example of when they saw it happen. If you don’t have trust, you won’t share.
How do leaders get around this issue and help employees to trust and find their voice? How do we make certain we hear what we need to hear, not what we want to hear?
Use the two most powerful questions available, assuming you are serious about wanting to learn the truth. Warning: If you begin using them, be prepared to hear things you’ve never heard before, some of which will hurt.
- Tell me something you think I don’t want to hear?
When you first ask the question, there will be dead silence. Everyone will be uncertain if you really do want to hear bad news. Don’t let them off the hook, ask again and someone will respond. When you hear that news, thank them, no matter how painful it was to hear and don’t feel the need to defend or explain. Just receive it unless they ask for an explanation.
- Tell me something about my leadership that you don’t think I want to hear or I’m aware of?
This one is harder to use because it’s personal, it’s about you. It will probably reveal something about you didn’t see, a blind spot, or something you hoped was hidden. You might be told things like “you don’t listen well”, “you can be condescending”, or for me it was telling me, “You can be very stubborn.” I guess I didn’t hide that one well. Once someone tells you something, take a deep breath and thank them. The next big step is asking for their help to fix it. Give them permission to tell you if they observe you aren’t listening, are being stubborn or whatever it is.
In using both questions, it can’t be “once and done”, i.e., I did it, now let’s get back to normal. You need to ask it again and again. The more you use these questions, the more trust will build up and the more you will hear. Soon you will hear things without asking because others know you truly want the truth. Asking either one or both questions will make you a better leader.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32