When people talk about presidents in a bubble, what do you think they’re talking about? They’re basically saying the person isn’t open to negative feedback because they don’t’ want to hear it or people are afraid to give it to them. You’re the same.
People underestimate the power asymmetry that exists between them and the people who report to them. It’s huge.
The President of the United States is the extreme of it, but believe me, if you have people reporting to you, they see you as all powerful. You control their lives, you set their compensation. If they have future aspirations in their career you’re the person they’re relying on. You have all the power. So you’ve got to ask them for advice.
What normally happens, and I used to do this for years, is I sit one-on-one with each of my people and say, can you give me a suggestion? And the reason I say one-on-one, no one wants to criticize you in front of others. They’re not going to do that unless they’re suicidal, but most people are not.
So you ask them, “Can you give me one thing I need to do to improve?” And the reaction you’re going to get is, “nothing I can think of.” So then you’re going to have to sit and say, “No, I’m really, really serious. I really want to improve and can you help me? Just give me one thing that I can do to improve, a specific action I can take.” The person will sit there, usually beads of sweat forming on their forehead. And they’re starting to think by this time this is some weird, perverse loyalty test or some sick trick that you’re trying to play on them. But you say, “No, I’m really serious, I really want your help. I really would appreciate it.”
So then, reluctantly, they say something. And I say “reluctantly,” because the moment they say it they immediately regret it. They wish they could take it back. Why? Because it’s devastating and it’s devastating because you know it’s true. You know everybody must think it. It doesn’t sound very good. You then thank them, try not to act devastated, they leave, you then call home and you ask, “Am I like such and such?” And on the other end of the line there’s a pause for a moment and they’ll say, “Yeah, that does sound like you.” And you realize, oh my god, oh my god. I really have a problem.
And you will improve, you’ll take action, you’ll improve and you’ll get better because almost invariably when people know what they need to improve on, they do get better. That person, by the way, will tell peers out there, “Boy, this senior person asked my advice!” And what happens over time is word gets around that you want advice and people start coming in and giving it to you. And for me in my career, what used to happen is people would warn me before a little problem became a catastrophe. They would say, “I know what you’re trying to do yesterday in that thing you did, but it didn’t go the way you thought and now you’ve got a problem with three people out there and you better go fix it.” And it would save me from all sorts of mistakes. But you see when you do that you’re no longer alone. You’re not so isolated and you’re not doing your job all by yourself. I haven’t met a leader yet who can be a great leader of a group all by themselves. This engages your people.
And some people say, “but it makes me look vulnerable, it makes me look weak.” I would argue the opposite. It makes you look strong. It is not a weakness to ask a question or seek advice. I would argue the most insecure people are the ones who do not do that.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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