The Ideal Situation
Read any article or book about effective leadership, and you’ll find exceptional listening and clear communication to be two tips offered. It makes sense, right? When your team member comes to you with a challenge, the best thing you can do is listen. Without interrupting. Without chiming in with solutions. Then when that team member finishes, you can ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the challenge as they see it. By communicating clearly and respectfully, your team member feels seen, heard, and understood.
Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? And when you’re able to follow the ‘listen, clarify, understand’ process, that goal of effective leadership becomes a reality. That reality isn’t always realized, though, especially when leadership blinders are in use.
The Not-So-Ideal Situation
Whether you want to admit it or not, leaders aren’t always open to what their team members have to share. This Anais Nin quote says it all:
“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
To make the quote—and those leadership blinders—more real, here are some examples I’ve heard from clients:
- “I didn’t even stop what I was doing when he came to my office. He complains incessantly so I’ve learned to nod—and then ignore– whatever he brings to me.”
- “She just started here a few months ago. I’ve been here decades. This issue she’s supposedly uncovered has been discussed for years with no resolution in sight.”
- “This is just how I am. I’m not changing so they need to get used to it or move on.”
- “I’m overwhelmed. I’m stressed. I’m tired. And I don’t have time for this.”
It’s no wonder with those leadership blinders on, there’s nothing remotely close to ‘effective’ happening. In the examples above, overwhelmed leaders see things one way: through a lens of their own experiences and opinions rather than a lens of understanding, curiosity, and open-mindedness.
This approach doesn’t leave much room for growth—the leaders’ or that of their team members.
Create a More Effective Situation
The solution, of course, is to get rid of the blinders for good. Easier said than done, you say? Here are three practices to get you started on a path toward greater understanding, curiosity, and open-mindedness so you can truly see things as they are:
MANAGE YOUR CONFIRMATION BIAS. This bias gives you the view that supports your prior experiences and beliefs. Have a team member who rambled the last three times you asked him a quick question? When your confirmation bias is kicked in, you’ll look for—and expect—that same rambling the next time you consider asking him a question. And when that’s the expectation, of course you’re less inclined to ask him those quick questions. Instead, you’ll opt to avoid him at all costs which further diminishes your understanding of him and the responsibilities he manages.
It’s important to understand and even expect your confirmation bias to rear its ugly head and then— decide to shut it down. To accomplish this, talk to yourself more than you listen to yourself.
Listening to yourself sounds like: Don’t ask him that. Remember what’s been happening when you do?
Talking to yourself sounds like: One of my leadership superpowers is respectful, professional communication. I’ll ensure he knows I’m interested in a concise reply.
PAUSE, REFLECT, AND SUSPEND JUDGMENT. I like to think of judgment and curiosity as being on opposite ends of a continuum. The brain often goes to the judgment end automatically. Thankfully, you have the ability to make a conscious choice to move toward the curiosity end instead.
This was a game-changer for me a few years ago. I didn’t realize how often I went to a place of judgment with my team members. Judgment for what they did or didn’t do. Judgment for the lack of results achieved. Judgment for the tone used on a client call. It wasn’t a good look for me, to say the least.
In working with a coach, I learned the many benefits of hanging out at that curiosity end of the continuum instead of the judgment end. I began asking more questions. Truly listening to the answers so I could gain a better understanding of what was happening. I found that the more often I hung out in that place of curiosity, the easier it became to pause and reflect on what others shared with me.
MAKE INNOVATION YOUR FRIEND. The old saying ‘The only constant is change’ is shared often because of its great truth. You get used to doing things the way you’ve always done them, and sometimes your open-mindedness meter might be stuck in the ‘off’ position. If the ultimate goal is effective leadership, though, innovation is key.
Encourage your team members to bring new ideas your way, new ways of accomplishing results that make the process faster or more thorough or smoother or more client-focused. And when they do, give them your full attention. Ask questions to tap into curiosity and keep you out of The Land of Judgment. Take the blinders of past experiences off, and picture yourself in wide open field where all ideas are worth exploring. Remind yourself of the great value innovation brings to your organization, your clients, and your individual team members.
Confirmation bias, judgment, and resisting change might be where your brain automatically wants to take you. Making a conscious choice to override those old patterns, however, will result in incredible outcomes for both yourself and those you have the opportunity to lead.