I've had the privilege of working for a number of good, and a few great, leaders over the years.
Many, but not all, are now retired. And, each of these leaders helped me grow in my skills, abilities and confidence by listening to and valuing what I had to say.
It may have been an opinion or push back about a particular plan or direction the organization was considering, or an idea or thought on how something could be improved, done better or done differently. And it wasn't always presented in the best way.
Often I was too blunt or direct and sometimes I didn't have all of my facts straight.
But the point here is that they listened to what I had to say and trusted that my intentions were well meaning. They also understood that clamping down on my enthusiasm and my eagerness to contribute would likely discourage me and prevent me from doing so again in future. They saw my potential and my strengths (as well as my weaknesses), and sought to develop and use them for the best interests of the company, and because they also valued me as a person and an employee.
Each of these leaders influenced me in different ways but in each case I grew because they allowed me to push back and share an opinions that often differed from theirs, and they were never (or at least rarely) intimidated by me doing so.
This left me free to raise my concerns and ideas without fear. It also provided interesting conversations that helped me to think in more depth about different issues and from different angles. I also received valuable constructive feedback that helped me understand that 'how' I pushed back and shared my opinions and ideas had an influence on how my ideas and thoughts were received. This feedback helped me grow and mature.
For many leaders, 'push back' or questioning of the status quo by employees, some of whom are in leadership roles themselves, is frowned upon. It may even be seen as rebellious or not being a team player. And while in some cases this may be true, more often than not it is tied to the leader's insecurity.
Most people don't simply want to do their job, at least in the beginning. They want to help make things better, to make a difference, to make a contribution both in the job they are doing and to the organization overall. They want to feel that their contribution to their job and the organization is worth something.
For organizations to grow and retain employees like this, they need leaders, at all levels, who know how to listen and who value and encourage feedback and push back from their teams.
In a recent Forbes article on building a culture of courage, Marjorie Warrell makes this statement:
Given that people will play safe unless they assess it’s safe to do otherwise, one of the key responsibilities for every leader is to ensure that employees feel as though their employers have ‘got their back.’ For this reason it’s vital for leaders at all levels to create an environment that celebrates innovative thinking and provides a safety net for employees to take risks – whether it be trying a new approach, challenging the status quo thinking or providing candid upward feedback.
Many employees won't necessarily push back or give their feedback and ideas in a way that is palatable to those they report to, at least at first. I believe this is because most of us don't like the idea of confrontation or of being wrong or criticized, and so we may be anxious or fearful about saying what we have to say. The result can be that we are too blunt, too direct and this can come across, often unintentionally, as disrespectful. Not a great way to lay the groundwork for being heard.
BUT, the best leaders among us, have learned to look beyond the person and their imperfect approach to the feedback being given, and to search for any nuggets that may be hidden in the words being spoken. They will bite their tongue, sharpen their listening and information seeking skills, and learn how to receive the information and process it without responding too quickly.
Rather than dismissing ideas or 'push back' right away, they will listen carefully, thank the person for raising the issue, ask questions to clarify, and then take some time to think it through rather than dismiss it out-of-hand.
Saying 'no' to push back or suggestions and ideas isn't usually the problem, unless we're always saying 'no'. The problem is usually how the 'no' is given and and whether or not the person saying 'no' to the idea, suggestion or criticism has actually listened to and thought carefully about what has been shared or presented to them.
This leadership skill, the ability to handle push back, feedback and criticism in a healthy way, plays a foundational role in employee engagement and seems to be sadly lacking in many organizations. The result is that few employees are engaged at work, only 29% in North America and 13% worldwide according to Gallup. Their jobs become '9 to 5' for the pay cheque, and organizations and their employees are poorer for it!
As, Warrell also stated in the Forbes article:
In today’s competitive, accelerated and uncertain marketplace, creating a ‘culture of courage’ that emboldens employees to rise above their fears is vital to creating and sustaining competitive advantage. With the latest Gallup figures categorizing over half of the workforce as disengaged, and nearly one in five workers as “actively disengaged,” organizations need leaders who not only engage employees, but move them to think more daringly, to take smarter risks, and to challenge the very assumptions that may have undermined their success to date.
Businesses that treat their employees like partners, by seeking and valuing their ideas and input, are likely to far outpace their competitors when it comes to customer service, sales and any other business metric worth noting.