This past weekend, the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came just two years after President Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenburg gate exhorting the Soviet Union to “Tear down this wall!”
Walls can be physical barriers that keep people and ideas out. But people can also create their own psychological walls that keep any criticism or less-than-positive news at bay.
HR and supervisors should ask themselves this question: How high is the wall I've created between me and my employees?
Do you know what employees are really thinking and saying to each other—or are they just telling you what you want to hear? Maybe you’ve shot the messenger one too many times. Or you’re so involved with your own work that you never interact with employees.
Dan Quiggle, author of Lead Like Reagan, says business leaders should look for the following symptoms to see if their “walls” are too high:
1. You either hear really good things from your people … or nothing at all. Great leaders actively seek out honest feedback about themselves from their own people and other leaders. You’ll typically need to be the one to initiate such discussions. Your people might freely offer praise (whether or not they mean it!), but you need to give them permission to share inconvenient truths.
Ask your people three specific questions: “What should I do more of?” “Less of?”and “Is there anything I should add?” Listen carefully and learn.
2. You take criticism too personally. When you hear criticism—especially if it’s meant to be constructive—do you respond with anger or denial? Because you’re a leader, people are always watching you and your behavior. Reacting badly to criticism—whether it’s a blow-up or a simple eye roll—will guarantee you’ll return to receiving half-truths and murky platitudes. Increased honesty won’t always be comfortable, but it’s crucial to real growth.
3. A “we” versus “them” culture persists. When employees uncomfortable telling their leaders the truth, they’ll gradually develop a “we” vs. “they” attitude.
“And when people believe that there’s a gulf between themselves and their leaders, they’ll become disengaged,” says Quiggle. “They’ll become clock punchers instead of entrepreneurs, and they definitely won’t go the extra mile.”
4. Employees are rewarded and promoted based only on hard data. Studies suggest that up to 75% of the competencies that distinguish average leaders from outstanding leaders come down to social and emotional skills, not academic intelligence. When you promote ineffective leaders, you paint yourself as one of them in employees’ eyes.
Take an assessment of your own soft skills. How do you interact with staff? If you want to get the most out of people, show you care about them as human beings, not just what they can do for your organization.
Bottom line: Think about the walls you’ve built that impede communication and honesty with your employees. Make it a point to ask your people to speak freely—and mean it. Explain why you want more of their feedback and create opportunities to encourage it.
Finally, once employees start opening up with ideas and feedback, act on it. Even if you don’t make the change they request, explain why.