You know the fairy tale – the big, powerful Emperor is convinced he is wearing a magnificent outfit. Only those who are inept and/or stupid are unable to see the beautiful fabric. In reality, he was butt naked! However, as he walked down the street, no one wanted to be perceived as stupid or inept so all the villagers praised his [non-existent] outfit. He beamed with pride – until a young boy, naive to the politics, spoke the truth. Even then, the Emperor would not accept the feedback and continued on his walk thinking – “what a beautiful man I am.”
It is easy to scoff when reminded of the fable – what kind of idiot can walk down main street with no clothes at all and think he is wearing a magnificent outfit? Who can be that dumb or naive?! How can he really believed that any one who disagrees with him must be unfit for his/her position or inept?
Seems extreme I know, but I see it every day. There are far too many Leaders who:
- Don’t take feedback
- Believe they are the smartest person in the room
- Expect others to blindly agree (at least in public)
- Don’t listen to input, ideas or perspectives
Is that you? Have you slipped into the Emperors clothes?
Do you really know what your direct reports think or feel? Have you taken the time to really listen? Do you encourage others to be a devil’s advocate and openly push back or challenge you?
It’s hard. No one wants to look bad, but being a Leader comes with extra responsibility. The reality is good Leaders remain humble and inquisitive – they don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.
If you communicate a lack of receptivity to input or feedback your staff knows. They figure you out quickly. They can and will play the role of “villager” and tell you what you want to hear in order to protect themselves. However, that is a road to disaster.
To ensure you are not naked, remember (and activity practice) the following:
- Ask for feedback. Better yet, ask specifically for negative feedback. Find out what you are missing or where you are wrong. Reward critiques.
- Suspend Judgement. Don’t be quick to shut others down (verbally or non-verbally). Probe until you can fully understand and repeat a contrarian viewpoint (regardless of your agreement).
- Listen to the message and intent. Do not worry about agreement or disagreement until much later. Probe, clarify and summarize.
- Change your Position. Employees notice if you never bend, change or alter your position. If not, they stop offering input. Be flexible – there are many ways to skin a cat – it doesn’t always have to be yours.
- Don’t be the Smartest Person in the Room. Admit you are wrong. Compliment a better idea. Acknowledge members of your team who are better – give them the credit deserved. Leaders who must have the last word or have the idea be his/hers are obnoxious. Leaders who think (and act) as if they are the smartest person in the room are dangerous.
It happens quickly. If you don’t have a source of candid feedback you are at risk. Instead of hoping there is a “little boy” in the kingdom naive enough to tell you the truth, I advocate you go build a village full of candid and open direct reports. Be humble enough to accept the input and you shall grow as a leader.