K IP WAS MY BOSS. He was about 6’3” and built like a linebacker (and as a former West High quarterback, I can tell you that it was the linebackers I feared the most). He was as smart as Simon Cowell is harsh, and he was destined for
the executive offices of our company. And, his hair was red– I mean really red. Remarkably, he had the ability to turn his ears redder than his hair. Unfortunately, this red-ear thing was not a silly “Hey, look what Kip can make his ears do!” trick like we’d laugh about in high school. This was a physical reaction that occurred when he was reaching an emotional boiling point. When those ears started taking on a tomato hue, people would duck for cover and then avoid him for the next month or two. Okay, maybe for just a few hours, but you can imagine the eggshells that were being carefully tread upon for that time and the hesitancy that others felt in sharing bad news with him or challenging his point of view.
Before we continue with Kip, let me ask you a few questions: How important is it to know what the trends are in your industry (consumer, economic, regulatory, etc.)? How important is it to know what your competition is up to and how your products, services and pricing stack up against others? How important is it to know the financial health of your organization? How important is it to know how well your direct reports are performing? My strong hunch is that your response to all of those is “Duh, Dave! Those are no-brainers. Of course it’s extremely important to know all those things.” And, I would agree with you.
Let me ask you another question. How important is it for you to know what you’re doing well as a leader and what you could do better? Again, my hunch is that your answer is the same…that it’s extremely important to know these things to truly be the best leader you can be. Yet, when is the last time you asked for feedback about your leadership from those you lead and your peers? Let me repeat that…from those you lead and your peers? Not just from your boss who is expected to give you feedback, but from those on the receiving end of your leader- ship and influence? And, not from just one or two folks and not through some brief on-the-fly conversation, but from a cross-section of people using a process that encourages depth, candor and actionable feedback? If you’re at all like most leaders I speak with, the answer is “not at all,” “not very recently,” or “not nearly enough.” So, most of us then are in this boat together, and could use a little help.
A useful model in the context of self-awareness, communication and relation- ships is called the JOHARI Window. One of the windows in this model is called the “blind spot.” The blind spot includes behaviors of which I’m unaware that I’m doing or of their impact, but of which others are keenly aware (like the impact of Kip’s emotional outbursts on those around him). In terms of development, it’s essential to reduce the size of one’s blind spot, thereby increasing one’s awareness of which behaviors are productive and which are not.
A practical approach to increasing self-awareness is to ask questions – to solicit feedback from those around you who may have a perception that would be helpful to understand. Make no mistake. This takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable (more on that in a future article perhaps). A very effective method to do this is through a 360- degree feedback process that gathers feedback from a variety of people who see you in action on a regular basis…direct reports, peers, your boss, clients and so on. One way to do that is through hiring someone like me to help guide the process so it has sufficient depth and is done in a way that people are open and candid. But that’s not the only way. A simple, do-it-yourself approach would be to invite a cross- section of people to share their perspectives with you directly. You could do this one-on-one with people, in a group setting or through written feedback. If you have an HR department, they may be able to help you. If you’d like a list of questions to ask, shoot me an email.
There is an art to receiving feedback which we don’t have space to explore, but suffice it to say that your approach needs to be listening-focused and non-defensive. Seeking clarification and examples are okay….as is saying thank you! Explaining your past behavior or disputing their perceptions is NOT okay.
I encourage you to create an environment where providing upward feed- back is welcomed and non-threaten- ing. Scheduling upward feedback into meetings on a regular basis (quarterly for example) could be a useful step, so long as you approach the process with a genuine willingness to learn and act on the feedback. Your willingness to take the lead on this will encourage other leaders to follow suit as they see your effectiveness increase. With consistent implementation, a culture of feedback can be created which will impact results across the organization.
Let’s go back to my former boss, Kip. I ended up talking with him about the impact his behavior was having on me as well as what I perceived the impact to be on others, and asked him if he would be willing to listen to these concerns. He agreed and I facilitated
a process of upward feedback that, while not comfortable for him or others involved, was incredibly powerful and served to reduce his blind spot considerably. He became much more sensitive to how his behavior was impacting others and learned to prevent himself from losing control most of the time. Others also became more willing to challenge his point of view and issues were worked through more constructively. While his ears still turned tomato-esque at times, they were definitely a lighter shade.
My hunch is that we each know the results we are striving to achieve in our respective organizations; those results likely center around revenue, profit, market share, corporate reputation and the like. As leaders and members of teams, our job is to deliver these results consistently and over time. That’s a reasonable expectation. What I see happening however, is that we sometimes fall into the trap of focusing so much on the outcomes we want, that we forget to channel sufficient energy into some of the people-related causes that create those outcomes.
The development of leaders and teams are two of those causes that deserve as much attention as product development, marketing, and customer service. In my humble opinion, at the end of the day, the success of any organization is limited primarily by
the quality of its leadership. Providing opportunities for leaders and the teams they lead to become increasingly self aware is essential to their development and to the long-term success of our organizations. After all, we are all still works in progress. To quote
the not-so-famous philosopher Scott Horton, “As long as you think you’re green, you’ll grow. As soon as you think you’re ripe, you’ll rot.” Let’s ensure that we as individuals and the other leaders in our organizations continue to grow. Let’s reduce our blind spots, and take our effectiveness to new heights. Your employees and customers will thank and reward you!
Dave Meldahl, M. Ed., is a leadership guide helping leaders and teams reduce their blind spots, increase their effectiveness and get where they want to go. He can be reached at 406-587-5884 or at [email protected]