Every leader my partners and I work with wants to be high performing. Yet not everyone is. A common question we get asked is “what do I need to do to increase my performance?” While there are many skills high performing leaders model, there are two essential skills that are akin to the first level of a video game. Start with these, and you will be able to unlock the rest of the skills in subsequent, harder situations. Skip them, and no other practices will be truly possible because these are necessary for all the rest.
Two Essential Practices
Bottom line: how you communicate what you are thinking and feeling, and how open you are to others’ ideas, disagreements and feedback matters. A LOT. So much so that when you actively practice these skills, you will set the foundation to being a high performing leader who inspires others, builds trust and exceptional teams and is viewed as coach-able. Without these practices at best, you will be viewed as an effective manager.
The two essential practices boil down to these below. Do not underestimate the power of what may appear as simple!
- REAL TALK. Saying what you are thinking and feeling. Being candid, direct, authentic – with care.
This is voicing your thoughts, opinions, input, disagreements, concerns, feedback. The easiest version of this is when others share your opinion and you feel you are in a safe environment. It gets increasingly difficult the less safe you feel, the bigger the group, the less you agree with others, the more interpersonal the comments (it’s easier to provide business versus interpersonal input), the less of an “expert” you are on the topic or the less you are aligned with others.
In most teams, Real Talk is most common in smaller, offline conversations and least common in team meetings. The lack of consistent Real Talk then engenders a dysfunctional team dynamic of underground conversations, unresolved conflict and lack of trust and alignment.
One way to think about practicing Real Talk: imagine you are on a doorstep. High performance leaders go through the “front door” with care – not kicking the door down (aggressively engaging or attacking) or walking around the house or the block (avoiding, being indirect, taking too long to get to the point).
Most commonly, we see leaders taking so long to say a fraction of what needs to be said that the message gets diluted (if it is sent at all) and the receiver never gets the necessary input or information. We also see examples of leaders over-using “Radical Candor” as an excuse to say anything, which can feel like a surprise attack.
The sweet spot is going through the “front door” – saying what you are thinking or feeling in an honest, caring way that others can hear.
- REAL LISTENING. Being receptive, curious and open to what others are saying. Whether you agree or not – regardless of what they are saying – you listen, ask questions, and hear them.
It can feel nearly impossible to not react, defend, disagree, explain, justify, rationalize or interrogate. To stay open, BOLD leaders are committed to a bigger “Why” – usually preserving the relationship, focusing on the Enterprise, growing as a leader – and they are able to depersonalize (which is critical to Real Listening).
When you practice Real Listening, you exude receptivity. It is as if you are receiving a special gift. Thank you. This is hard to hear AND I hear you AND I appreciate your willingness to share this with me. The ultimate example of this is when my husband says, “Thank you. Is there more?”
Remember, the other person is stepping out of THEIR comfort zone to share Real Talk with you.
I have heard high-performing teams refer to feedback sessions as a gift-giving exchange. However, more commonly, I have observed team members react defensively or personalize, where they occur more as a brick wall than as someone receiving a gift to help them.
The SeeSaw Effect
Most teams who are new to high performance work have a dynamic where the CEO and 1-2 others on the team practice Real Talk, with the majority of others being on the quieter side in full team meetings. Imagine a seesaw where there is an uneven dynamic of talking and listening in the team: it occurs as unbalanced and out of sync.
To reach full performance, it is imperative that everyone on the team practices Real Talk and Real Listening consistently across the team.
There is also a relationship between the two practices: the more Real Listening leaders practice, the more Real Talk they will receive. Like a well-balanced seesaw, the more you listen without judgment, the more others will share with you. The less receptive you are, the less likely others will tell you the truth, provide feedback, or share tough news.
Real Talk is positively correlated with Real Listening.
In our team sessions, the leader receives feedback in a team report shared with everyone. When the leader models Real Listening from the start, it inspires others to continue Real Talk directly without the help of an anonymous survey. And when they don’t, the opposite is true.
You can practice this at work and at home. I believe my teenagers consistently tell me the good, the bad, and the ugly because they have consistently heard I am more committed to hearing what you have to say than having you tell me what you know I want to hear. This can be hard to practice! The biggest reason I have been (mostly) able to respond consciously is because of my commitment – to them, to our relationship, and to inspiring them to tell us the truth no matter what.
Real Listening cultivates Real Talk.
If you want people to speak honestly and openly, focus on how YOU are reacting. A lack of receptive listening cuts the candor in your relationships and teams.
- Look in the mirror – how much are you practicing Real Talk and Real Listening in your teams? What is the mindset you have that drives your willingness to engage and be receptive? What would you need to shift to increase them by 10%?
- In your leadership team, if you don’t feel everyone is practicing a good balance of Real Talk and Real Listening, what part are YOU contributing to the dynamic?
- Think of someone with whom you could increase your Real Listening: How committed are you to the relationship versus to being right? What do you need to shift in your own mindset to be 10% more receptive than you are today?
Please feel free to reach out to me and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,