Our biggest blind spots (and what to do about them)

You know what’s really hard about being in the position I’m in now?

I feel like I’m the last to know.

I know my team isn’t trying to hide things from me – not maliciously at least. I think I have a great relationship with everyone on my team– better than most leaders. But no matter how many trust exercises we do, I’m not sure they feel entirely comfortable telling me what they really think. I mean REALLY think. Not entirely.

A couple of weeks ago I realized I am not alone.

The hardest part of being a leader

A lot of leaders, CEOs, managers feel the same way. They are often the last to know what is truly happening in their company. The problem compounds as you add more employees. I’m a great position right now. There are only seven of us. I know everyone personally. I work in the same room with five of my team members, and I’ve known our New York developer for so many years that there’s no way he would not tell me what he really thinks.

But all leaders have blind spots.

I had a chance to hear Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, speak at 99U recently. It was eye-opening, and I walked away with a lot of really great knowledge and understanding about how to uncover the things you don’t know. Because uncovering what you don’t know really is the most important thing.

One of my favorite sayings is inscribed on the Main Building of my Alma Mater, The University of Texas at Austin – “Ye Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Set You Free.” There is so much truth in that. A lot of times that truth is inside the people who work with us. They are an amazing source of knowledge and insight, and no necessarily just for the things you hired them to do.

But how many times have you been asked how things were going and you lied? I know that I’ve told a lot of people things were “fine” when they really weren’t. And I’m not alone. According to Lew’s company research, 70 percent of employees hesitate to speak up. And 40 percent of employees have admitted withholding information about their company — information that could have influenced it.

Think about that for a moment.

Our biggest blind spots

So what should we understand about employees and why they hesitate to speak up? Lew had some insight based on research her company has conducted among clients.

1.Employees feel stifled

Employees feel like they aren’t progressing when they believe they can do more. According to Lew, 75 percent of employees feel they can contribute outside their current role. What’s more, 59 percent feel they are being blocked. And when employees don’t feel challenged, that can lead to turnover.

If I think back, a lack of challenge led me to leave a number of positions. There’s nothing worse than dreading going to work because it’s the same thing over and over again.

So what can leaders do?

Lew says it’s important that companies offer employees meaningful work, not just more money. We need to find a way to help employees develop deep skills. A great way to do this is is to develop a culture of learning and helpfulness.

Ask your employees if there is anyone in the company they would like to apprentice under. Lew’s company has asked this, and 92 percent of respondents said “Yes.” That’s pretty huge.

Your company might be able to set up an apprentice program. How great would it be to have your employees mentor each other? At Standard Beagle, we encourage the team members to take outside classes, whether they be through the local community college, through organizations like General Assembly, Treehouse or informal meetups. We have monthly lunch and learns where we share what we’ve learned with everyone else.  Not all of this learning takes place on company time, but we try really hard to make that happen.

2.Employees feel the company is behind the curve

You may think you know it all, but you don’t. Once I sat with three of my team members for a late dinner after a networking event — they were talking about the new restaurants in town and where all the “hip” people go. I had never heard of half of the places, and I realized that they have a lot of insight that I don’t have. As much as I try to stay on top of tech news and the latest trends in programming, I can’t and don’t know it all. Fortunately, leaders don’t half to. Employees are a wealth of knowledge, and they have a lot of really good ideas.

What can you do to tap into it?

  1. Don’t kill an idea too quickly.
    No one will put themselves out there with their idea if they think the boss is either going to ignore it or shoot it down. Arguably, not all ideas are good. Still, before you dismiss an idea, give it at least 5 minutes. If you haven’t been doing this, ask yourself: What are the ideas you haven’t been listening to?
  2. Spend 15 minutes writing down questions that challenge the status quo in your own company.
    The worst thing any company ever said is “This is how we’ve always done it.” Get yourself in the habit of rethinking how you’re doing things. Then ask your employees if there is anything in particular they think the company is behind the curve on. You will be even more receptive to their feedback.

Don’t ever be satisfied with or to attached to your own ideas.

3.Your employees want more feedback

But they don’t want more performance reviews. Lew says 63 percent feel they already have enough performance reviews. What they really want is regular, helpful feedback. Feedback results in higher engagement with employees. So how do you do that?

  1. Communicate consistently.
    Return calls and messages within 24 hours. Don’t be that manager that no one can get a hold of. Give employee calls and message the same priority as clients.
  2. Communicate richly
    I try to set up one to ones with my team members every quarter. Just talking helps a lot. Even if it’s not about work. You can also take advantage of social opportunities — attend parties with the team; go to happy hour. Be real around them. Another idea — survey employees so you can get a feel for what working for you is really like. And have all company get-togethers. The more you are together, the more people will feel connected and engaged.

Remember: Practice->Habit->Culture.

Why do we have blind spots?

Now that you know what the blind spots are, it’s worth pointing out that you still have to get employees to talk. Lew says there are two big reasons employees don’t want to provide feedback:

  1. Fear
    Lew says 68 percent of employees feel fear at work. I get it. I’ve had jobs where I was afraid to speak up out of fear of being fired. In fact, in one job I had, I spoke up and upper management actually retaliated against me. They were so unhappy that I brought up my concerns I nearly lost my job. It was made very clear to me that my company did not want to hear dissent. I left that job on my own within months.
  2. Futility
    The feeling that it doesn’t matter is even more prevalent than fear. Think about it — would you want to speak up if you thought that it wouldn’t be taken seriously anyway? I know I wouldn’t.

But you can stake steps to overcome these feelings. It takes consistency, but it’s well worth it in the long run. How?

1.Go first

When we did our trust exercises, I went first. I don’t like being vulnerable in front of other people, but by going first and setting an example, your employees will see that you really mean it. You don’t even have to do trust exercises. Reach out to a team member. Go to them with questions — “I could use your advice…” or “I’m struggling with…”

Who doesn’t like being asked for advice?

2. Ask specific questions

People do better when asked to be specific. Think about the last time you were asked, “How’s everything going?” I usually say “fine,” automatically. But if you make your question more specific… “What’s one thing that really needed to be improved in the last sprint meeting we had?” You’re more likely to receive constructive feedback.

People are also biased toward recency — so you can timebox your question. “In the past two weeks, what’s one thing you noticed that we really need to work on?”  You’re more likely to glean some important insights.

3.Do something

You don’t have to accept or act on every idea, but every idea should be acknowledged. At the very minimum, show gratitude for the feedback. “I really appreciate you sharing that with me.” Be open and honest if you aren’t going to act on the idea. You don’t want to leave any room for assumptions, because people will fill in the blanks themselves. How many times have you assumed that someone isn’t returning your text message because they don’t like you? I automatically jump to conclusions, and I’m sure some of your employees do the same.

Explain why. “Here’s why we’re not doing that…”

4.Ask for permission

Ask your employee if you can get their advice. Again — people love to be asked for advice. You demonstrate respect for that person by asking for their advice. That in turn builds up a rapport which can lead to a closer relationship based on trust. It goes a long way.

5.Ask yourself…

“What does it feel like to work for me?”

Be honest with yourself. What would your employees say? If it’s not all sunshine and roses, you have some work to do to build trust. And until you have trust, you really can’t engage employees to provide useful feedback so you won’t be the last to know.