Don’t ask for feedback if you don’t want it

I sat in on a client meeting one day, and saw the leader make a classic communication mistake that never fails to cause resentment.

Tom had decided on a course of action for the group to take. I don’t know how much research he had done, or whether he had received input from others, and he didn’t say. That, however, wasn’t his mistake. Managers reach decisions in various ways, and Tom had clearly done so in his way. His mistake lay in the way he announced his decision.

His exact words were, “I’ve decided this is how we’re going to move ahead — unless anyone has any objections.” As he said this, he glanced around the table, and his facial expression clearly said that objections would not be welcome or even seriously considered. As an observer, I could tell that at least two of the attendees had something to say, but didn’t speak up.

In any conflict between words and body language, the body language always wins, and Tom’s people responded accordingly by withholding their input. They also kept their feelings to themselves, but I have no doubt they resented Tom’s statement.

So what could he have done instead? Well, depending on whether or not he was open to input from his team on the subject, he had two choices.

1. Input welcome

Having made the decision, he might ask the team for some ideas on how to deal with the consequences of the actions. In that case, he might say, “I’ve decided this is how we’ll be moving ahead. I’m sure there will be some negative response from the field managers — does anyone have any ideas on how to handle them?” Or, “I’ve decided this is how we’ll be moving ahead. If anyone has any thoughts on how to communicate this to the front line people, I’d welcome them either now or after our meeting.”

2. Input not welcome

If he has already given the matter all the consideration he feels appropriate and doesn’t want comments on his decision, he might say, “I’ve considered this from all angles, and I’ve decided this is the way we’ll be moving ahead. Let’s talk about how we’ll implement the process.”

While the second way may not be popular among team members, at least it doesn’t pay lip service to collaboration, while at the same time slamming the door in the face of anyone wanting to speak up.

Clear, genuine communication can help make even unwelcome news acceptable, and builds confidence in — and respect for — the leader who knows how to use it.