Some senior leaders I coach are troubled that their staff appear intimidated by them. But it’s not because of their behavior, they contend. They genuinely want their people to engage, push back, and offer feedback when they present ideas, but it seems their title and position prevent staff from speaking freely.
When I ask these leaders how they try to solicit input they note how they end a presentation by asking “Does that make sense?” or “Was that clear?” But these questions could imply that anyone who doesn’t think the ideas make sense or were clear must not be very bright. Instead of inviting comments, these questions only seek a yes or no answer. If all the leader gets in response is nodding heads, can they really be sure that what they said made sense or was clear?
Rather than ask yes-no questions to solicit feedback, I suggest these leaders ask open-ended questions, such as:
- What’s your takeaway from what I just said?
- How did what I’ve presented land?
- How does this idea work for you?
- What should I be concerned about:
- What questions do you have?
- If you were in my position, what might you do differently?
I also remind leaders that they have a thorough understanding of their own ideas — they know the context, the desired outcome, and maybe even potential options for achieving it. But when speaking to others about it, they may unintentionally leave out essential information, which hinders others from fully appreciating the particulars of the ideas. Furthermore, some people aren’t comfortable responding on the spot. A better approach may be to say, “Take a little time to think about what I’ve presented and what I’m looking for from you. We can reconvene this afternoon to discuss ways to move forward and what additional information you need.” Allowing people to digest an idea or a request and identify gaps in their understanding helps ensure everyone is on the same page and saves time in the long run.
When working with leaders who are sharing a vision for the organization or a change process, I suggest they present it to their whole team together and then break into groups of four or five where they address these questions:
- What did you hear?
- What did you like?
- What concerns you?
- What is missing?
When the team gets back together and the breakout groups present their responses, they are less likely to feel intimidated or seen as criticizing the leader’s ideas because the answers aren’t coming from one person but rather the small group. This process also helps clarify the vision, allowing others to share in it and feel more committed to it.
Sometimes it’s not only a leader’s staff who hesitate to offer feedback and criticism. A leader’s own peer group may be reluctant to criticize another leader’s ideas. One approach I’ve devised that’s especially helpful when a leader is seeking feedback on their strategic plans from peers is to assign roles to each leader— such as customer, shareholder, CEO, competitor, or employee — and have them listen to the plans and provide feedback from the point of view of their role. This roleplaying allows the leader’s peers to give more direct feedback without appearing to criticize the leader personally.
If you find yourself asking for input with questions that don’t get you what you want, it’s time to choose another question and practice using it. Notice the response you get back and tweak your questions until they generate the engagement you and your organization need.