"What do you think of my new haircut?"
I stared at my friend blankly. My mind raced. How do I respond? Does he really want my opinion? Should I just put it out there and tell him that I'm pretty sure the mullet combined with a faux-hawk look never really took off?
I settled on, "It looks...bold!"
And bold it was. Bold for requesting the barber do that to his head, but probably even more bold to ask for my input. It takes courage to ask the question, "What do you think?" In life, and more specifically in organizational life, those four words don't get said enough, but that simple question can unlock tremendous insights and ultimately better decisions. Or, if not asked, it can push us towards a lifetime of mullet faux-hawks.
So why don't we ask that question more often? Here are a few common reasons.
We live in a world of facts. Most of us have been encouraged throughout our careers to "stick to the facts." And maybe for questions such as "Did we hit our quarterly revenue target?" that's all you need. But when it comes to questions like "Will our customers like this new product feature?" "Is this meeting going on too long?" or "Should we really get burritos for lunch again?" facts will only take you so far. You are part of a team for a reason. You need to know what others think.
We are worried about what people might say. Sometimes feedback is tough to hear. Sometimes. But, the fear that feedback will be harsh, awkward, or painful keeps us from asking the other 98 percent of the time - when opinions and feedback are incredibly productive. So we stick our heads in the sand (or maybe some of you have had bosses who have stuck theirs elsewhere) and hope that the problem goes away. For some it's because of personality type (as an ENFP in Myers Briggs, I request a minor layer of sugar to coat feedback given to me), for some it's history (I still haven't quite gotten over that girl in elementary school who said I had "dinosaur feet," whatever that means). But in order to improve, we have to get used to asking for input.
We assume people will speak up. If someone has an opinion about something, they should share that opinion. Right? Well, that assumes a very high level of trust and vulnerability that really only a small percentage of teams and relationships have. While the absolute free flow of ideas, opinions, and feedback is a great goal to have in any relationship, back here on planet reality you're likely going to have to prod for that input with a question or two.
We fear we might actually have to change. Don't ask for input or feedback unless you are willing and able to make a change. Now this doesn't mean that you have to bend to every piece of feedback that you hear. Remember, these are opinions after all (but if you hear the "opinion" that you're late to a meeting four days in a row, they might be on to something). Ask, listen, and be open to change.
In order to get to this point in your career (and your life, for that matter), you've likely wanted to get better all along the way. One of the best ways to do that is to gather the input of others. A CEO we worked with recently wanted to ensure that he would get the input of his entire team by forcing it before any decision was made. In fact, he implemented a norm on his team that "silence equals disagreement" and now instead of living in a world where the opinions of his team rest comfortably in each of their heads, those opinions now come out with regularity.
So ask away. In your regular interactions at work, start to weave in these questions:
- What do you think we should do here?
- How do you feel this meeting went?
- How do you think I'm doing on this project?
- What else do you need from me as a leader?
- What could I be better at?
And I have to eat my own dog food here, and end this with:
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