Let me introduce you to an employee who recently joined a new employer. As her previous job, Reema was a top performer at a fast-growing organization where she contributed plenty of ideas. Everyone knew of her incredible leadership skills. Her insights determined most decisions. Hers was the voice everyone stopped to listen to in meetings—everyone except for Jared, the founder of the company.
Last week, Reema gave notice that she accepted a job at another company. She would have better pay, more visibility, and more autonomy. She wrote a LinkedIn post about how grateful she was for the incredible experience at Jared’s company. Jared sang her praises in the company-wide Slack channel. No hard feelings. It’s just business. People move on.
It seemed all was right with the world—besides the fact that this entire process did not need to happen. Yes, Reema left because she found a better opportunity, but Reema also left because she felt stifled and undervalued by Jared. And Shamika before her experienced a similar situation . . . and Nuranne before them. Notably, the HR department didn’t blink twice at these departures because the numbers were all in the range of healthy turnover.
It’s the classic line from politicians that they are stepping down from office to “spend more time with family.” This may be true. But what are they not saying?
Opportunity for learning and growth hides in the perspectives we don’t want to hear. The perspectives that confuse, infuriate, and challenge us. The perspectives we don’t typically hear until someone leaves the organization, if ever. So how as a leader can you better meet, and embrace, inconvenient truths? I provide a few ideas.
From time to time, it can help to have someone on the team who never agrees. This devil’s advocate individual can help turn the tables in a beneficial way and broaden your discussion. Team members should take turns taking on this role so the responsibility doesn’t fall to people who are naturally outspoken or see things differently because of their backgrounds. Taking turns also reduces the likelihood any person is stigmatized for slowing down the conversation or being the proverbial “stick in the mud.”
The implicit power imbalance between leader and team members makes asking people to share what’s missing feel risky. Instead, bake the same simple questions into evaluating any idea. To begin with, ask yourself what are the upsides, as well as the downsides? Use whatever language suits your culture. It can be a pro or a con. Alternatively, you can use plusses and minuses when doing your analysis. The key is to create predictable spaces where others can share different perspectives.
Interrogate your own reaction
Inconvenient truths are by definition inconvenient. They take time and energy (we don’t have) to engage with. They mess with the comfortable narratives we have about who we are (typically, good, well-meaning, capable people). If you’re upset when a colleague or someone who is providing you feedback points out a mistake or an example of bad leadership—that’s okay. It’s normal to be upset. But don’t let that be the end of the conversation, where you shut off and storm out.
Instead, consider what behaviors, mindsets, actions have led your conversation partner to feel this way. Further, consider what would it mean if it were true? What might you learn from this exchange, down the line.
Consider what you’re losing
What are the costs of you denying or not wrestling with their perspective? Further, ask yourself what learning and growth are you missing out on by ignoring inconvenient truths? In addition to turnover, consider the impact of your unwillingness to engage with the topic on work culture, productivity, innovation, and trust.
Refusing to engage with others’ perspectives often means making others uneasy to preserve your own comfort. This sort of one-sided burden is too often taken up by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) employees.
These days, adopting “a growth mindset” is a popular phrase. Many companies even name “having a growth mindset” as a core value. In a nutshell, it means going beyond the things which are easy and palatable, to embracing the things you don’t want to hear and someone has likely taken risk to share with you. It can look like the team isn’t going to hit the sales targets for the quarter, that you’ve created a toxic work culture, or that they are really leaving the company because they felt you didn’t value their contributions.
While incredibly important, it’s not just about retaining the Reemas and other valuable employees of the world or about creating work cultures in which everyone can thrive; it’s also about getting out of your own way, as a leader. Don’t stop at the convenient truth, seek out, embrace, and engage the inconvenient. It can be key to supercharging your own learning and capabilities.
Elaine Lin Hering is a lecturer at Harvard Law School and a managing partner of Triad Consulting Group, where she has worked with leaders from across the globe and across multiple industries to develop skills necessary to work better, together.