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Want a culture of candor?

Open yourself to feedback


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Organizational cultures can be characterized in many ways. One view is through the perspective of the quality of conversations. Does your culture play it safe, avoid discussing differences and raising issues? Is the price for raising an issue greater than the cost of keeping quiet? Or perhaps your culture rewards saying what is on your mind and telling others how it is.

Or, does your culture transcend our human characteristics of fight or flee, and work to be open, speak with candor, and to do so accurately?

A key aspect of shifting a culture to increased candor and accuracy is how leaders are conversing and the example they are modeling. This work is done one leader and one conversation at a time.

One method a leader can use to start the shift while improving leadership is by hosting feedback conversations. I often ask people who I work with how they have engaged those around them. Answers in an avoidance culture often reveal a vacuum, void of meaningful feedback. Occasional hints from superiors or clues for areas of improvement in a performance review are common. Effectiveness is then gauged through limited and false information. Answers from a from a fight culture tend to reveal dramatic stories that have a life of their own. 

Gathering verbal feedback can be viewed from 360 degrees – a review with feedback from bosses, peers, direct reports and customers. A verbal 360 – when executed well – can be extremely helpful to the leaders and combat avoidance and fight cultures. Electronic 360s – facilitated via email and web applications – are great at gathering feedback, but can promote evasiveness.  

When possible, the best approach is to gather the information in a way that is consistent with a culture you are trying to create. Thus, the verbal 360 principles are recommended.

Your purpose is to gather an accurate understanding of your effectiveness and where you can improve. Reviewers will sniff out any underlying intent that is not spoken (e.g. hoping just to hear positive feedback), and may unwittingly encourage them to avoid real feedback/

Plan who you want to interview and have representation from around you (up, down, sideways, peers, and perhaps customers). Identify at least one person in each area. Anonymity is not an issue when you interview. Choose people who will help you grow, who may have tougher things for you to hear, don't just choose fans.

Invite participants. Assuming they say yes, schedule at least half an hour. Hold the meeting in their office or somewhere they choose. Going to the reviewer increases the chance they see you as open and wanting their perspective.

Set the context. State the purpose and let them know you are interested in their perspective.

Use standardized questions. This allows you to gather input on the same question from different perspectives. Below are standard questions I prescribe. Add clarifying questions as they come up throughout the interview process.

"What have you noticed about my leadership when it is effective?"

  • Ask for examples and query for accuracy. Learn what is actually working well with your leadership."

"What have you noticed about my leadership when it is less effective or not effective?" or, "Where might I make improvements?"

"What recommendations do you have for me to increase my effectiveness in the next few months?"  – a close timeframe draws out actionable advice.

Taking notes from each person helps you remember and shows that you value their input. When you are done, ask yourself: "What themes are in this feedback?"

For low-hanging fruit (suggestions you immediately want to commit to), commit right away. then with the reviewer and document your commitment as you will want to include this in a follow-up.

Aftermath: Sit down with each reviewer to let them know what you learned, changes you are making and to see if they notice differences. Schedule these meetings far enough out to give your changes a chance to be seen, yet soon enough to make course corrections.

Leader's conversations can shape the future. Even if the information you receive isn't useful, you are engaging in an accurate and forthright manner. Your sponsorship of a performance feedback conversation about your leadership demonstrates by example multiple leadership competencies. Following this process with accuracy and the intent of improved leadership will leave you with a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, suggested changes and will be the beginning of a larger shift around you.

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Roger Henderson

Roger J. Henderson is a personal coach who works with a wide range of clients including executives, leaders, managers, technical professionals, and individuals looking to make changes and realize their potential. His industry experience includes aerospace, manufacturing, health care, professional sports, and non profit organizations.

Reach him at hender.coach@outlook.com or 303-448-0046.

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