I love a good argument. Approaching decisions with a debate-like mindset that allows you to weigh and consider all options and their advantages genuinely is essential for coming up with novel ideas and not just going with your kneejerk reactions. For leaders, it is invaluable to hear from your team where you might be doing the wrong thing, or have them play devil’s advocate to help refine the decision process.
In my specific background, that sort of speaking up is almost a given. When I was an 18 years old corporal in the Israeli Intelligence Corps, I argued with a Lt. Colonel I hardly knew about the right approach to tackle an issue. The Intelligence Corps also has a department whose sole job, by definition, is to play devil’s advocate for the assessments and opinions coming from the rest of the organization.
It was years later that I realized such an open culture is not something that should be taken for granted. Even in Israel, it is not hard to find teams that do not incorporate enough chutzpah. Getting upward feedback is critical, and fostering a culture that welcomes it can be a force-multiplier in many organizations.
And as much as it might be hard for you to provide (regular, “downward”) feedback, ingraining this in the other direction is harder and often requires an explicit effort.
Are you lacking upward feedback?
Consider how long has it been since you last witnessed these:
- An employee told you, one-on-one, that she thinks you’re making a mistake in your decision or approach to a problem.
- An employee told you, one-on-one, that you should not have done something you did in a meeting.
- During a session discussing your roadmap, someone spoke up to question the reasoning behind the decision and the prioritization?
- Someone came up with a different approach or initiative and tried to make their case for it.
- You were challenged publicly about conformance to the company’s values (e.g., “we state Innovation as a value but work in crunch mode for months on end without the ability to try anything new”).
- Someone questioned a past decision during a retrospective and the implementation of the lessons learned.
All of these are excellent examples of people speaking up to help the company improve. How often do you see these happening?
Fostering Upward Feedback
If, as you’re reading the above list, you realize that you should be working on improving your situation and raising your team’s chutzpah level, here are a few approaches.
You should already be holding regular retrospectives, post-mortems, and review meetings. In these meetings, always start by asking the team for feedback about what should be changed for next time and which mistakes were made—explicitly mentioning that this request also includes criticism of actions by you and other leaders.
When someone does speak up, don’t shoot them down immediately and fight the urge to be defensive. Listen to the whole thing, accept their thoughts, and thank them for their candor. If people feel that speaking up never results in any changes or isn’t genuinely listened to—they’ll stop doing it.
In 1:1s, both those you conduct yourself and those undertaken by the other managers in your team, elicit feedback from the employees. Ask if you missed anything you should have done, if there’s anything they expected you to do that you didn’t, and so forth.
Refrain from pulling rank or providing obtuse answers. In discussions, your answers should very rarely be of the form of “because we said so.” You don’t have to get to a consensus, but you do need to be transparent about your reasoning so people can understand it and know what should be challenged.
No Smart-Alecks Allowed
A parting disclaimer: fostering speaking up does not give your people a license to be cynical and annoying—think about Silicon Valley’s Gilfoyle. Just because you want to get people’s thoughts and opinions doesn’t mean that every group meeting should now become a platform for nonstop quips, remarks, and rejoinders. If the criticism boils down to merely complaining, as opposed to constructive, actionable feedback, do not tolerate it. It might seem funny or witty at first, but these tend to spread and worsen with time.
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