Can you handle the truth?
Updated: May 25, 2021
I work with lots of leaders, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them say, “I don’t want to hear what my team thinks!” or “My team found a problem? Well, cover it up and don’t tell me about it!”
But the reality is that many team members are probably reluctant to speak their mind, especially when they think you might not like what they have to say. Even if you give your team explicit permission to tell you anything, they probably won’t. And the bigger your title, the worse this problem gets.
So why is this happening?
There’s a famously quoted line from the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” Maybe it’s so famous because it resonates for many of us. Are you really open to hearing ideas and opinions that you don’t agree with? Can you really handle the truth? Here are a few ideas on why you might not be getting the truth from your team and how to open yourself up to more honest conversations:
Value of differing opinions. Do you actively seek out differences of opinion? Or does your response to feedback or challenging questions result in an eye-roll and a quick dismissal? If so, you might be the reason you’re not getting the truth. What does seeking out other opinions look like? After sharing your idea, ask a question like “What did you not like about what I just said?” or “What parts do you disagree with?” Asking these types of questions assumes that people have different opinions- that differences of opinion are expected.
Only the loudest voices get heard. Surely you have at least one team member who has an opinion about everything. And this person speaks out. A lot. But just because one person is telling it to you straight doesn’t mean that others are willing to speak up. And having one loud voice can actually deter other team members from sharing. Does one team member dominate meetings and conversations, shutting down opportunities for quieter folks to speak up? If you’d like others to share, acknowledge the feedback of one and then ask for other opinions and ideas. Asking openly makes space for quieter voices to be heard.
Perceived consequences. Are there consequences to disagreeing with you- especially in public? Team members may think twice about being honest with you if they’re worried about something bad happening. “If I disagree with the boss, will I get the next crappy assignment? Get stuck at the desk in the corner next to the bathroom? Or even be passed up for a promotion?” If team members believe there may be consequences if they disagree with you, they certainly won’t be honest when you ask for their opinion. You can be reassuring and encourage honest conversation, but actions speak louder than words. Make sure you aren’t inadvertently punishing those who speak out against your ideas. Actually, you should thank them instead.
Handling the truth. Having someone disagree with you can be tough, especially when you’re the boss. But being able to listen and understand your team before passing judgement on ideas establishes trust. And the boss doesn’t need to have all the answers, either! As a leader, your most important job is growing a high-functioning, autonomous, purpose-driven, and joyful team. Your job is not about being right all the time. You don’t have to agree with every opinion or idea shared (some might be horrible!), but you do have a responsibility to listen and understand, and then coach as needed. Until you do that, your team will be reluctant to share.
Ultimately, getting team members to share their thoughts and opinion comes down to trust. If you’re missing it, you’ll always struggle to get honest opinions from your team, and you’ll fail to see what’s really happening in your team until it’s probably too late. What does trust look like? Do they trust that you really want to hear what they have to say? Do they trust that they’ll be heard? Do they trust that they won’t be punished for sharing an unpopular idea? Do they trust YOU- and your ability to handle the truth?