Beware the Leadership Bubble

The “leadership bubble” may be preventing you from getting all of the information you need to effective lead your organization.

Whether you realize it or not, as a leader with significant power over the lives and livelihoods of others, virtually everyone you communicate with is going to be careful about their interactions with you. Even the most friendly and approachable leaders eventually come to terms with this reality.

Your power is what gives you the potential to make a difference. And it also gives you the potential to cause harm. And everyone around you knows this. Have you noticed that everyone seems to laugh at your jokes? I hate to break it to you but you are probably not that funny. Have you noticed that fewer and fewer people are willing to disagree with you? When was the last time you have someone come forward and tell you that you were wring? This is the “leadership bubble” almost all top business executives live in, and it can create a distorted view of reality if you are not careful.

It can also mean that you are not getting the bad news that you really need to hear if you are going to be an effective leader. So let’s start with a few questions you should be asking yourself to determine if you are really getting all the information you need to execute your vision, allocate resources productively and make well informed decisions.

  • How often do you hear about projects that are not meeting their timeline or budget? What do you think this means?
  • When was the last time someone disagreed with you openly during a business meeting? How did you respond?
  • Look at the team you have assembled around you. Are they cohesive because they are all cut from the same cloth? Or are they a broad mix of backgrounds, opinions and thinking styles?
  • Do you really want to hear the bad news? Or do you expect others to deal with it before the information gets to you?

There is no way to give you a standard “ones size fits all” approach to this issue. Every organization is unique and every leader is is complex. Business cultures present many variations that will impact your approach. But the ultimate goal can be universal: build a corporate culture of open communication, frank discussion of difficult issues and encouraging diverse points of view before making key decisions.

So what can you do to encourage this type of corporate culture? There are five specific actions that can help you.

1. Tolerate Dissent

This can be difficult for many leaders. After all, most of us would prefer that everyone “see the light” and agree with our thoughts and opinions. But even if you are correct, it still can be helpful to tolerate dissent. At the very least this will provide a crucible in which to  test your thoughts. If in fact your vision or strategy or decision is the best one then an engaged discussion should make that clear.

Remember, the individual; who is dissenting is often giving voice ot the opinions of many others who are not as comfortable speaking up. So the way you treat this person will be carefully observed. If you embrace the dissent and engage fully, you are likely to see more of this behavior in others eventually. But if you cut the person off and make it clear that dissent is not tolerated, you will produce the opposite outcome.

2. Encourage Frank Discussion

Many leaders feel they are being paid to be decisive and to lead, not to discuss. They are not comfortable in the role of a discussion “facilitator.” They would rather hear a few opinions of others, then make a decision. And the reality is that often the leader’s decision is the right one.

One of the reasons they have been placed in a position of leadership is that they have been right more often than they have been wrong. Business leaders are typically bright, competent and dedicated to doing what is best for their organizations. So they can be forgiven if they sometimes tend to lean a little too heavily on their own council.

But over time, a leader who does not cultivate a culture of open discussion and dialogue within his organizations will tend to become more and more myopic in his thinking. As he or she gets wrapped in the leadership “cocooon” that filters information coming in, the business instincts that served so well in the past can veer off track.

So encouraging frank discussion can help to ensure that you are always hearing the authentic thoughts and opinions of those around you.

3. Ask Provocative Questions

One way for a leader to “prime the pump” and drive an organization toward more frank and candid discussions is to ask questions that provoke a truly engaged response. Not obvious questions where the “right” answer is clear, but subtle, nuanced questions that force people to think. Be sure to avoid telegraphing your own thoughts or opinions when you ask these questions, and don’t let anyone hide out.

If you have someone who tends to speak up consistently. let this person know how much you appreciate their opinion, then ask them to hold back in order to force others to step up.

4. Reward Dissent / Punish “Yes People”

Ultimately you will see more of the behavior you reward, and less of the behavior you “punish.” So find ways to reward those who are speaking up. Let the organization know why you are rewarding them. Make it clear that one of your top values as a leader is open, authentic dialogue. And be patient – some will believe you and respond right away. Others will take longer to be convinced. And some will never be comfortable sharing their genuine thoughts in an open forum. For those people you may need to schedule one-on-one time to get to their true thoughts.

And if you eventually determine that an individual cannot make the transition, then you need to help to move them on to a career somewhere else. This will send a powerful signal to everyone in your organization, that open dialogue isn’t just desired, it is a critical part of your corporate culture.

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