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Appreciating Constructive Challenge More

It is not difficult to conceive of appreciating followers who find new ways to support their leaders. It takes a greater stretch of the imagination to conceive of appreciating staff who challenge the way in which you are leading.

Imagine for a moment that you as a leader are surrounded with people who deeply appreciate your vision, your integrity, your communication and organization skills, your strategic and tactical thinking, and your ability to get people to commit to the mission of the organization. This sounds pretty good.

Now imagine for a moment that they admire you so much that they will not tell you anything negative, including these points:

You have misspelled the name of your most important client or contributor in a letter that is about to be mailed.

You are unknowingly violating a key cultural norm of an international VIP you are hosting.

You are about to sign off on the financial statement of the company when they know there is a serious flaw in it that could land you in legal trouble.

Any of these examples sound ludicrous and irresponsible of the people surrounding you. Of course you want to be corrected in these matters! You don’t pretend to be perfect. You expect your staff to keep you from making errors!

But what about the following examples? If you were the head of an organization or department, would you really want staff to tell you what they are thinking in the following instances?

You are so forceful and intellectually intimidating at meetings that no one wants to risk embarrassment by raising questions or alternate ideas for consideration.

You are losing the trust of key staff and board members because you seem more interested in your compensation package than in the welfare of the organization.

You are pushing through more mergers and acquisitions than the organization can assimilate productively, and this is endangering the company’s viability.

The first set of examples would clearly save you from embarrassment, or worse. The second set hit more of a nerve. They challenge some aspect of your values, style, or vision. It would take a lot more for you to appreciate being confronted in this manner. Needless to say, it would also take a lot more for staff to get up the courage to challenge you in this way.

Yet, from an organizational point of view, it is at least as important that you be told the second set of observations as the first. These perceptions are likely to have more long-term impact on your career and the organization’s success. How do you make sure that you create a climate in which you hear and pay attention to feedback of this nature that you might rather not hear?

The first thing you must do is to examine your own beliefs about authority and what is appropriate to say to those in authority and what is not. You may have had role models, either when growing up or early in your career, who did not tolerate questioning or disagreement and viewed it as insubordination. If so, you would do well to ferret out these models, examine them, and reclassify them as poor examples of contemporary leadership style.

Next, reflect on your comfort with criticism. It is very natural to react to criticism defensively. You undoubtedly have observed your peers or subordinates do this many times when you have tried to bring a problem or situation to their attention. There was no need for them to respond defensively, as you were not blaming or attacking them but simply bringing something to their attention that needed remedy. Yet, they became defensive.

Now imagine if you respond in this quite normal human way to a subordinate who has the courage to raise a sensitive matter with you. Because of the position of authority and power that you occupy, if you react defensively, you are unlikely to hear further about this matter or be given any other feedback that individual may have for you. Therefore, we can conclude:

A requisite of good leadership is to override naturally defensive feelings, statements, and behaviors and display genuine interest in what sources of critical feedback are telling you.

The need to develop this capacity is often unrecognized or given insufficient importance. It is not easy to do. Initially, it may require considerable self-discipline, but, with practice, even those who find this posture uncomfortable can come to appreciate giving and receiving feedback.

Finally, you have to demonstrate responsiveness to feedback. There is no point in staff taking risks to give you critical feedback on sensitive issues if they never see a return on the risk. You may or may not accept or act on the feedback, but you need to demonstrate that you are responsive to it. Here are a number of different levels of response as examples:

I’ve thought about what you said the other day, and I’m not going to act on it for the following reasons. . . . But I appreciate your bringing the matter to my attention, and I hope you’ll do so again if it still seems to be a problem.

I was pretty skeptical about what you said the other day, but, on reflection, I realized that you might be right, so I’m giving it further consideration.

I’ve thought about what you said, and here are the actions I’ve taken. . . . I know it’s not everything you thought I should do, but I want you to know that I took what you said seriously.

I heard what you said the other day, and I’m going to try to make the changes you suggested. I probably won’t do it perfectly, but I want you to know I’m working on it.

I realize the seriousness of the discussion we had the other day, and I’ve taken five major steps to address the issue. Please give them a few weeks to take effect, and then let me know whether you start to see changes or not.

A few leaders are naturally good about creating a relaxed atmosphere in which staff can give them critical feedback. Most have to make a conscious effort to create such an environment. There are few acts that are more essential to the long-term success of leaders and their organizations.