Giving the leader above you some candid feedback or criticism can prove to be a dicey proposition. In too many cases, powerful leaders respond defensively to feedback and view it as insubordinate from someone who reports to them.
To avoid negatively impacting the relationship, most underlings refrain from offering feedback or any sort of criticism to their leader. This seems like the safe play. Unfortunately, the consequence of holding back means repeatedly enduring the same ineffective behaviors, messages, or choices.
There must be a way to make a strong suggestion to a leader without suffering the insult of being told to mind your manners, or worse.
If, as the writer William Arthur Ward suggested, “Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning,” then asking your leader a crafty question about their ineffective behavior is the flame that burns the mind.
Letting questions carry feedback is an indirect way to make a point without challenging others. Since any feedback can be expressed as a question, this is an excellent strategy from which to draw a leader’s attention to what is bothering or puzzling you.
The key is to become honestly curious. Asking your leader to explain the logic, rationale, or strategy behind their choices simultaneously promotes that you want to learn from them and indirectly suggests that perhaps there is a better way.
For example, say your leader talks too much and too often in team meetings but seems oblivious to the impact this choice has on the group discussion. Rather than point-blank suggesting they talk less, consider asking a curious question instead: “I’m struggling in my own team meetings with how much to talk and how much to listen. You seem to have a clear strategy for this. What advice would you give me regarding how much space to take up in team meetings through offering my views and opinions?”
It really doesn’t matter what their answer is. The feedback has been delivered simply by asking the question. The question itself suggests they might consider their own ratio of speaking to listening in team meetings.
This is a smart play.
Once the feedback has been dispensed through the question, the key is to resist the temptation to argue about whatever their answer might be. The reply really doesn’t matter. Once the question has been posed, the feedback has landed. Let it sit there and have its impact. Don’t ruin the influence it will have by arguing over whether the answer is accurate or to your liking. Be craftier than that. Just watch the question and feedback seep into the mind and work its magic.
Curiosity can sometimes burn the house down in a good way.
It seems this also works top down too. I had a commander in the military when I was a Captain that trained us to think through problems and come up with a couple of possible solutions before we brought the issue to his attention. He did that by first asking some variation on "How would you solve this?" after the problem is presented. At the time he was a Major (Lt. Col. select) and eventually retired as a General (my most memorable leader in the military). I know that's a different behavior which seems connected to this one with the only difference being which direction the question is directed (you up the chain; or you down).
This is a real spicy one!
Listen to the discussion that unpacks this Field Notes entry from today: