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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

3 Ways to Know What You Need to Know

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A big part of my job as a coach is delivering colleague feedback summaries to my executive coaching clients. Sometimes the feedback is hard for them to hear. I have sympathy for them. I was once a corporate executive and, in one particular case, got some blistering 360 feedback that had me licking my wounds for a month or two before I finally gathered up the gumption to act on it.

My own experience with tough feedback makes it relatively easy for me to ask my clients having the same experience, “Would you rather know or not know?” The best leaders would rather know. They understand that you can’t fix it if you don’t know about it.

Top people often don’t get to hear what they need to hear. For valid or imaginary reasons, the people in their organization often are afraid to share tough or bad news so they hold back on speaking the truth or spin it when they do. The result is problems that could have been avoided or corrected, disengagement and clueless leaders.

To be an effective leader, you have to choose to know. Here are three ways to make sure you get to know what you need to know:

Ask the Right Questions: If you want to know what’s really going on, ask open ended questions that generate discussion, not closed ended questions that lead to yes or no answers. For example, at the height of the Iraq war when things were going really badly, President Bush would often say in press conferences (paraphrasing here), “I regularly ask the generals, ‘Do you have everything you need?’ and the answer is yes.” Now, what’s the right answer to that question? “Yes sir, Mr. President.” A better question would have been “What do you need to succeed?” or “What are you missing that you need to succeed?” If you’re the leader in a position of authority and you want people to open up so you can know what you need to know, ask open ended questions.

Slow Down, Shut up and Listen. Bad leaders, like bad poker players, have all kinds of tells that indicate they don’t really want to hear the bad news. Asking for input and then plowing ahead to what they really want to talk about is one. Interrupting to explain the feedback away or justify why it’s not right is another. Tells like that indicate that feedback isn’t really welcome and it’s safer for everyone else to keep their heads down and their mouths closed. That’s when leaders end up not knowing what they need to know.

Do Something Visible: The way to keep hearing what you need to know as a leader is to do something visible to address the feedback you’ve already gotten. People are only going to keep sharing their ideas and observations if you’ve demonstrated that you’re willing to act on what they share. If you’re not going to act on what you hear, you’re better off to not ask in the first place.

So, what about you, would you rather know or not know? What are your best methods as a leader for making sure you know what you need to know?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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