What Happens When Leaders Show Humility and Openness to Feedback?

Whitney is an HR manager. She works for a small IT company.

She found herself facing one of the most challenging conversations an employee can have: confronting her boss about his behavior. Adding to the difficulty factor, her boss was the company president.

Whitney knew she would not be doing her job if she didn’t confront Sal about what she had heard. He had shared something with a manager about another employee, something that should have remained confidential.

Choosing the courageous conversation

Whitney decided that she would discuss the issue with Sal in their next meeting.

Before their meetings, she and Sal send each other agenda items. On the agenda list Whitney emailed Sal, she included an item referencing the conversation in which Sal had been indiscreet.

When the agenda item comes up in the meeting, Whitney says to Sal: “I’m aware that you shared with Bill about Arthur’s upcoming layoff. I had concerns about what happened and wanted to understand your decision in doing that.”

Sal’s face turns red. He says, “I’m totally embarrassed, but I want to tell you my rationale.”

After he shares his reasoning and they discuss the situation more, Sal says “I understand I made a mistake and it won’t happen again.”

Whitney is well aware that one of Sal’s greater strengths as a leader — his unpretentious, non-hierarchical, authentic style of leading — has occasionally become a liability. Every now and then, he forgets appropriate boundaries and says things that should have not been said in a particular context.

Because of this, she fully expects it will happen again.

“Actually, Sal…I think it probably will… We’ve had this conversation before and it’s happened again.”

She then gives Sal some examples, not in an accusatory or shaming way, but in a simple descriptive way so Sal will understand her assertion.

Hearing this, Sal responds with “You should probably document this, shouldn’t you?

Whitney is both stunned and impressed by Sal’s willingness to put himself in a vulnerable position with a subordinate. He doesn’t use his power to put himself above the rules or being held accountable.

Whitney tells him she thinks it would be wise to do so, and to do it with email so they have documentation.

Later, Whitney follows up with the email and Sal acknowledges it.

The potential impact of a single conversation

This 10 minute conversation illustrates the impact any conversation can have on how an employee feels about their manager. It illustrates far more than this, though.

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Here’s the effect this conversation had on Whitney.

She had recently been paying attention to other job opportunities, something she had never done before in the over 10 years she had worked at this company. She loved working there, in large part because of the culture of respect created by Sal’s leadership.

However, the last couple of years had been tough, with economic and marketplace shifts forcing the company to reduce hours and salaries. The tumult had made her less confident about the company’s future and led her to question if she would be wise to explore alternatives.

This conversation changed everything.

It reminded her of why she loved working at this company. It reminded her of how deeply she appreciated Sal’s authenticity and willingness to be challenged and held accountable. It reminded her of how much she loved the authentic, respectful culture they had created, and what a pleasure it was working in such an atmosphere.

Whitney’s reaction is a good reminder of the huge impact a single conversation can have.

Takeaways from this situation

Don’t let Whitey’s story result in an “Oh…that’s nice” response and nothing more.

Use it to reflect on YOUR leadership style and how you respond to feedback and challenge. If you do, it can have the following impact:

  • Increase your ability to inspire trust, commitment, and passion.
  • Reduce the chance of unwittingly responding in ways that damage morale and engagement.
  • Build relationships that result in employees wanting to share their ideas and show initiative.

Here are three questions to get you started:

  1. Have your past responses shown a willingness to receive feedback and be challenged? Because Sal had a history of non-defensiveness to feedback and being challenged, Whitney was willing to bring up the issue. She didn’t have to engage in the common workplace calculus of “Is this big enough to confront the boss with? Is this a battle I am willing to fight. Because of Sal’s track record, her “Is it worth it?” threshold was much lower than with most employees considering whether to bring up a potentially touchy issue. Because of this, Whitney didn’t end up thinking: “Nope, not worth it. I’m going to keep quiet and hope it doesn’t happen again.” When employees make this decision, the unresolved issue simmers in the background, leading to resentment, or at the very least, leading them to caring a little less and putting a little less effort into their work.
  2. Do you respond in ways that make it likely people will give YOU the important information you need to lead? Sal’s response to this difficult, personal situation reveals someone who is not a “shoot the messenger” leader. Because he responds well to difficult feedback, his team is far more likely to bring him news that he might not want to hear, but needs to hear.  Thus, he’s far more likely to get the critical information he needs to make wise decisions.
  3. Do you make it a habit to ask for feedback and opposing viewpoints. Employees pay close attention to their boss’s words and actions. If their boss demonstrates with minor situations an active interest in getting feedback and hearing opposing perspectives, employees are far more likely to speak candidly about the really important issues.

If you aren’t sure about your answers

If you are not sure how to respond to these questions, or you are simply very serious about becoming even better about getting feedback and critical information, consider having your team interviewed on how you are doing in this area and how you can improve.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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