“When one person tells me a harsh truth, I can be sure she’s speaking for others who aren’t as bold. It makes me pay better attention, and then I realize others have been saying the same thing all along, just more softly. I haven’t heard it because I haven’t really been listening.”
-Melinda French Gates, The Moment of Lift
While this is a quote from Gates’ experience supporting global humanitarian efforts, the implications apply to anyone in a position to receive and respond to “harsh truths,” especially senior leaders. Appropriate problem response is the bread and butter of senior leadership. But effective problem solving requires hearing about problems in the first place, and not accidentally ignoring them.
Big problems rarely appear out of nowhere.
By the time we acknowledge a “harsh truth” and are ready to take action, that problem has likely been building up for a while. Yet, it is not until we face the full severity of a problem that we remember all the warning signs that revealed themselves along the way. From brief hallway conversations to vague comments in a 1:1, it is often only in retrospect that we realize that people already told us something was amiss, we just weren’t able to hear it.
Why Problems are Accidentally Ignored
According to the change management experts at Prosci, “Key messages must be repeated…five to seven times to be effective.” If this is true, it is in our best interest to understand what might be preventing us from receiving critical information.
Back-to-back meeting and competing priorities.
It’s hard to be fully present, not to mention receptive, when you’re simultaneously processing content from your last conversation and mentally prepping for your next one…while responding to text messages from your kiddo’s school…and trying to figure out when you can squeeze in lunch. Unfortunately, a typical hectic workday makes it easy to miss out on key information.
Feeling overwhelmed by the implications.
Sometimes a problem can be too scary to accept. “What if they aren’t the only one who feels this way? Has this been going on since I got here? Am I the last to know? No, that’s impossible.” With so much on the line, downplaying a problem can happen on autopilot, and without realizing it.
Prioritizing politics over rapid problem-solving.
Senior leaders are well-versed in filtering messages through the lens of our boss, other stakeholders and long-term objectives. However, this important skill becomes problematic when it dilutes, or disregards, key information before it has been given proper consideration. We are so used to “tuning out noise” that we sometimes miss a critical signal.
The truth hurts sometimes, plain and simple. It can be hard to acknowledge when our impact doesn’t match our intentions. Let alone know what to do about it or what to say in the moment. Accepting the fact that we might have messed up is no easy task.
Embrace Problems with Effective Listening.
Accidentally ignoring problems can be prevented by improving our listening skills. And fortunately, these skills can be learned. The following exercises build on one another. You can practice them on your own, or with a trusted colleague or supportive coach.
Phase One: Check in with yourself after hard conversations.
Any time you are told about a challenging problem, take a deliberate pause after the conversation before you take action. It does not need to be a long time, even five minutes will do.
Take a deep (or three) and ask yourself the following questions, ideally writing down your answers:
- What did I just learn?
- How does this information make me feel?
- What am I worried about? Why?
- What do I think needs to happen next? Why?
- What words did they use to describe the situation, specifically?
Next, take another deep breath and go back and revisit your answers, in order. Write down any changes to your answers.
Now, ask yourself the following questions*:
- What, if anything, has changed about my perspective of the problem?
- What do I actually know about the problem? How do I know it?
- What do I still need to learn? How might I find out?*
- Given what I currently know, and do not know, what is my next step?
This quick exercise does three things for you:
1. Helps you acknowledge and process your experience of the problem.
Problems trigger our adrenaline. And the reality is, most workplace problems require critical thinking, not our fight-or-flight response. This exercise allows your body to move through those big feelings before you do something you regret.
2. Enables you to gain perspective on your own thinking and tendencies.
Your answers will probably change as you move through the exercise. What might this tell you about your assumptions or biases? How might this impact your decision-making process? Effectively hearing the other party requires recognizing when our own voice might be getting in the way.
3. Creates a plan based on critical-thinking.
A great way to counteract emotional decision-making is to plan for it by having a rationality cheat sheet at the ready. This process ensures multiple aspects of the problem are considered as part of your initial response — The facts, opinions, feelings, and what remains to be discovered.
Phase Two: Apply these skills during hard conversations.
After you have established a consistent routine of pausing and reflecting after the fact, you will probably find yourself naturally acting differently as the problems arise. This is a good thing.
Yes, you should continue the pause and reflect afterwards. But applying these skills in the moment, when it is appropriate to do so, will create significant additional benefits.
Real-time stress reduction.
By pausing to take a deep breath during the situation, you are signaling to your body and mind that it is not time for fight-or-flight. You are safe and it is time for thinking.
Equally important, you are modeling the right behavior for the other people involved. Your deep breath is signaling that you are in the moment and ready to give the problem clear-headed attention. If the other participant(s) are stressed, it may help remind them to take a deep breath, too.
Ability to focus and ask good questions in the moment.
It may sound silly, but once your mind and body know that you have a reliable way to process problems, it will make them less challenging in real-time. You will be able to more quickly separate your feelings from the immediate situation and simply listen to what is, or is not, being said. Thus, you will be ready to actively listen, provide support and ask helpful questions to understand more.
Create a more engaging environment.
As the leader, your team learns from what you do and how you do it. Remaining calm during a stressful conversation builds team confidence and trust. By listening intently and asking meaningful questions, your team members will feel heard and valued. When your actions are based on critical-thinking, your team will gain perspective and enhance their own problem-solving skills, too.
Phase 3: Be Proactive.
While we cannot prevent every problem, we can discover them sooner, hopefully stopping them from getting worse. However, this requires becoming the type of leader with whom people want to share problems. In other words, you need to demonstrate that you are both approachable and worth approaching. Here are a few tips to get started:
Go where the work happens.
Spend more time with your team, on their turf. This is not the same as micromanaging or wandering around. Make a deliberate effort to say “Hi” and ask how folks are doing. Remember their pets’ names and share vacation photos. Acknowledge and celebrate how hard they have been working. Appreciate what they are doing, where and how they are doing it.
Make good use of your 1:1’s.
If you have not already done so, consider adding a standard question to your regular team member check-ins that provides an opportunity to for them to bring up problems that may not otherwise come up. Below are a few considerations:
- What should I be asking about that I am not?
- Are there any problems that keep coming up that you wish we could resolve for good?
- If you could wave a magic wand and have the executive team fix one thing impacting your work every day, what would it be?
Reflect on your values, regularly.
Politics and ego will always be part of the workplace. And while they can’t always be avoided, they can be put in perspective. Carve out time each week (okay, at least monthly) to reflect on your company (and personal) values. Consider asking yourself:
- What situations tested my values this week? What did I do about it?
- When were my values in conflict with one another? How did I approach it?
- Which value was easiest for me to practice? Why?
- Which value has been most difficult to practice consistently? Why?
- How does my work environment support me, or not, in consistently demonstrating my values?
Making time to deliberately focus on what matters builds a reinforcing lens with which you will view problems as they arise. When faced with challenging problems you will be ready to receive, and respond to them, in line with what is most important to you.
“The message sent is not always the message received.” – Virginia Satir
Problems are hard enough without getting in our own way of solving them. The first step is being aware of these very human tendencies and deliberately looking out for them in ourselves. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create the environment where problems can surface and be resolved swiftly. After all, if we are accidentally ignoring problems, we cannot help fix them.