If you're going to successfully lead your team members through these rocky times, you need to listen to their ideas and understand what they're dealing with— and that requires a dedicated effort on your part. These strategies will help you keep your finger on the pulse of your IT group.
Most leaders tell me that they know what's going on in their organizations. They don't.
In demanding times like these, it's particularly important for leaders to get feedback. But precisely when they need to be considering all options and opinions, they may not hear many of them.
One reason for this sorry state is that some leaders don't really care. They're so certain of themselves (or their talent, or skill, or brainpower, or whatever) that they truly don't think anyone else can tell them anything new. Most won't admit it, however, because they think you won't understand. So they say things like," I'm open to any ideas or suggestions that will make us better." And when feedback is offered, they may even appear to appreciate it. But action speaks louder than words — and that's how you can tell just how sincere those words were. Kind of like all those companies that proclaim, "Our most important asset is our people" and then at the first sign of trouble, start layoffs so they can keep other activities in place.
Here are some field-tested ideas I've seen used successfully in various situations to elicit valuable information. I used the first one myself when, as a leader of a large, just-acquired company, I oversaw the layoffs of 1,300 people.
1: The anonymous hotline
Nowadays, hotlines can be e-mails, phones, or paper tools. However you do it, put something into place that allows people to provide candid, honest feedback or ask questions without fear of getting busted. I used a mailbox, kind of a "Dear John" thing, where people could ask questions or sound off and I'd reply to them.
2: Public communication tools
If you have a newsletter, use it to keep folks aware of what's going on and to deal with rumors, which are harmful. Publish Q & A's, based on questions you've heard through other means, such as your anonymous hotline.
Someone in your organization should be accessible to anyone who wants to make a point, ask a question, or sound off without fear of reprisal. Employees should know that what they say will be relayed to the head honcho. In some organizations, this is the HR person; in others, it may simply be someone who is trusted and respected by all involved. Just identify someone and let that person know that you need him or her to keep you in touch with things.
4: Anonymous surveys
As long as employees have no fear of being "caught," surveys are great tools for getting your fingers on the pulse of the organization. But don't over think them. They should be done quickly and fairly frequently. And have the guts to make the results public afterward. That shows the employee base that you're aware of their concerns. If you can't provide a fix, at least let them know that you care about the problem and will try to deal with it when you can.
5: Lunch with the leader
Periodically, have a lunch meeting with folks from all levels of the organization. Make it clear that there will be time at the end of it for a question-and-answer session if the group consists of more than 12 individuals. If the group is small, make a point to sit beside any quiet ones and encourage them to open up.
6: Visits to other departments, offices, or locations
The best way to open up communications is to show that you're accessible and interested. I don't care how often someone says they care about what's going on in other locations. If they're never there, they won't hear enough.
7: Social events
Many people will tell you that there's no such thing as a social / work event. They characterize the Holiday Party or the Summer Picnic as political affairs, and they're probably right in many companies. But such events don't have to be heartburn-inducing activities. If you use them as "skip-level" affairs, you'll probably enjoy yourself and learn a ton about what your team members are really feeling. Make it a point to spend time with those at least two levels below you, tell your direct reports to do the same thing, and then compare notes back in the office.
8: Contrarian perspectives
When leaders allow themselves to hear only what they want to hear, people figure it out pretty quickly and clam up. If you show that you appreciate a healthy debate, you're more likely to get differing ideas thrown about.
One of the founding senior execs at DIRECTV was famous for throwing Nerf footballs with anyone still in their cubes after 6pm or on Saturdays. It was a kind of jock thing, but even those less-than-jock types could throw the little soft football around. Sending a few lateral passes allowed time for a bit of bonding conversation and built trust between the leader and the team.
Tom Peters coined the term MBWA — "management by walking around" — back in the 80s. If you're serious about wanting to encourage honest feedback and candid comments, read his writings. The premise of MBWA is that if you expose yourself to enough people enough of the time, you'll hear things you might not otherwise have come across.
You need to know
For many reasons, people will hold back or shelter the boss from certain information. It's not healthy and makes it tougher to be as good as possible. People who really want to know what's going on in their organizations do the things listed above. Those who don't, probably don't really want to know.
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John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion dollar organizations and launching start-ups in both the U.S. and Canada. The author of two published books, he is frequently seen providing advice on TV, in magazines, and newspapers.