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Respond With Regard

A Leadership Skill That’s Rarely Taught, But Sorely Needed

Aug. 12, 2020
Too many people at the top don’t respond mindfully to ideas and feedback, and it damages their culture.

How you and leaders at every level respond to ideas and feedback will either build momentum or crush your culture before it gets started. We call this behavior Respond with Regard. Responding with regard means you receive ideas and react in ways that respect the other person, build momentum, improve your employees’ strategic thinking, and generate more useful ideas.

In our experience, this skill is one of the most underappreciated and rarely taught in most leadership and management training. Unfortunately, that lack of training results in three common leadership failures.

1. Apathy

We met Nolan, an energetic and creative vice president who has repeatedly brought ideas to his CEO that would save the company millions of dollars. The CEO dismissed the ideas and replied, “Just do the job I hired you to do.” Nolan is able to do that work without breaking a sweat, so, he says, “I take a long lunch every week and take flying lessons. When I get home, I work on starting my own business.”

This is an example of the first mistake leaders make when responding to ideas and feedback: they respond with apathy. Perhaps they take the employee’s ideas as a threat to their own competence, a challenge to their authority, or they just don’t want to be bothered. Regardless of the reason, when your managers respond with silence or apathy, it’s a guaranteed way to kill a Courageous Culture.

2. Avoidance

David witnessed a classic example of the second response problem at a midsized education-focused nonprofit that was experiencing high turnover. At the board of directors’ request, the CEO conducted an employee survey that asked courageous questions to help uncover the challenges behind the turnover and asked for potential solutions. When the survey results came in, the CEO didn’t like what she read. The employees had accurately diagnosed problems with her leadership and the cadre of senior leaders who passed along her dysfunctional policies. She wasn’t able to own her role in the organization’s problems, so rather than respond to the feedback, she stuck it in a drawer and never addressed it with her staff. As you can imagine, after she avoided their feedback, the staff felt ignored and devalued. Their retention issues escalated. 

This is an extreme example of the most common way that leaders don’t Respond with Regard: avoidance. The worst form of avoidance is when you combine it with apathy. This happens most often when a leader thinks it would be a good idea to ask for feedback but hasn’t committed to responding to what they hear. The feedback comes in, but it’s inconvenient or unsettling, and so the leader doesn’t respond to it. You’re better off not to ask than to ask and not respond.

3. Poor Reactions to Off-Base Ideas

The third problem is more nuanced. Several executives, when they heard about our work with Courageous Cultures, told us, “Oh, that’s not our issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”

“And do you listen?”

“Some of the time, but after a while you can only take so much.”

Which prompts the question: What happens next after you’re tired and they’re ignored? It’s only a matter of time before they stop trying or find someplace else to work that will listen. It’s worth the investment to help your team better position their ideas. Many people will start by speaking up and contributing ideas, but like Melinda, they don’t do it elegantly. The third problem is responding poorly to incomplete, off-base, or inelegant ideas. Responding with Regard to these sorts of ideas makes all the difference in whether you’ll get the contributions you do need next time.

How to Respond with Regard

Recently, David made a “contribution”—he donated blood through the Red Cross. What happened next is a great example of how you can Respond with Regard to get more solutions, ideas, and critical thinking from your team members. Four weeks after donating, he received the following email: Thank you for giving blood with the American Red Cross on May 23. Your blood donation was sent to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, to help a patient in need. Your donation is on its way to change lives! Every day, patients receive blood for a variety of conditions including life-threatening illnesses, blood disorders, and traumas. Your blood donations are critical to helping save patients’ lives. Schedule your next donation today! The message was followed by a large red button to schedule his next donation.

This is a fantastic example of how to Respond with Regard. There were three elements that you can include in your responses: gratitude, process, and invitation. They thanked him, told him how his contribution was making a difference, and invited him to do it again. The same approach works for leaders when team members contribute ideas.

Gratitude

If you want more solutions, start with thank you. We see many leaders overlook this easy step. When people take the time to think about how things could be better, let them know you appreciate it: “I really appreciate your taking time to think about how we can do this better. Thank you!”

Celebrate solutions, yes, but also celebrate the act of contributing. Call attention to and celebrate employees who share new ideas and solutions—even when those solutions don’t work. You get more of what you celebrate and encourage. Don’t celebrate only the ideas that work; celebrate the act of sharing thoughtful ideas and solutions. You’ll get more solutions, and some of those will work.

Process

Next, share the process. Let them know what happened with their idea and the relevant time frame. You may not have an elegant automated response system like the Red Cross, but it only takes a moment to circle back and close the loop with team members. If it will take six months before you consider these ideas because of other strategic priorities, say so and explain the other priorities (your employees may surprise you with ideas that achieve those objectives). Invitation Finally, invite them to do it again—to think, problem solve, and advocate for your customer. The Red Cross invited David with a large red button to schedule his next contribution. Your invitation to contribute again can take many forms. If their ideas need work, give them the additional information they need and ask them to recraft it. If their ideas were tried in the past and didn’t work, tell them what you learned from that attempt and ask them to consider how to overcome those problems. Even if you can’t use the ideas at all, a sincere “I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can achieve our goal this year” will keep the ideas flowing.

Responding with Regard isn’t difficult, but it does require your leaders to focus on the bigger picture and long-term outcomes. Sometimes this means finding small wins that might not be game changers today but create long-term potential.

We met Damon, a senior leader in health care, who shared what became one of our favorite ways to Respond with Regard. Damon had served in the military before his career in health care and learned this strategy from one of his commanding officers. “When someone speaks up with an idea, find a yes. You may not be able to implement the entire idea, and the piece you say yes to may not be transformative or worth a huge effort—it might even be a small headache. But when you can say yes to something, it brings down the walls.” What a powerful way to think about how you respond to ideas! Damon smiled as he shared this strategy. “When my commanding officer first gave me this advice, I laughed at it. But now I use it nearly every day. If you can find a small win for them, meet them where they are, it changes their outlook and, in many cases, they’ll run through walls for you.”

Find the yes is another example of gratitude, process, and invitation—wrapped up into one straightforward response. People feel seen, appreciated, and know that they make a difference. Nothing communicates that you truly want to hear ideas more than finding a yes and getting that idea into the world.

This article is excerpted from the book Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Microinnovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020).

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, a leadership training and consulting firm in Maryland, and the authors of 5 books, including Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul as well as Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Microinnovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates. Recently named to Inc’s list of Most Innovative Leadership Speakers, Karin and David work with leaders around the world who want to achieve breakthrough results and build highly innovative, courageous cultures. They are also dedicated to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells, building clean water wells in Cambodia.

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