Stop asking 'How can we improve?' Research says the best CEOs do these 3 things when asking for feedback

"The Office" (Pictured: Steve Carell as Michael Scott)
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For many companies, it's not a leader's fear standing in the way of progress — it's thousands of small, missed opportunities when employees do not speak up and share their insights.

But it takes more than a generic "How can we improve?" to keep people motivated and draw out their best ideas.

In our recent research on courage and innovation, nearly 50% of employees surveyed reported they withhold their ideas, simply because "no one asked" or because they lack the confidence to share.

"But I have an open door," you might say.

That's not enough; it's passive. If employees don't think you really want their ideas, they won't bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They're starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move.

Making your team feel that they've been genuinely invited to contribute — especially when working remotely — requires a cadence of regularly asking "courageous questions."

How to ask 'courageous questions'

Courageous questions address the concerns your people have about whether you want to hear what they're thinking, and whether you have the confidence and competence to do something with the answer.

They differ from a generic "How can we do better?" question in several ways. Based on our research, the best CEOs and managers do three things when asking for feedback:

1. They get specific.

We often hear from leaders who complain about the quality of ideas or how so many ideas aren't relevant to their top priorities.

The solution is straightforward: Ask for what you need. 

For example, rather than asking, "How can we improve?" ask, "What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? How can we solve it?"

Or, "For the next two quarters, our most important priority is customer retention. We need every idea we can get to help keep our best customers. What's the greatest obstacle to keeping our best customers? What's the number one low-cost action we can take to improve our customer's experience?"

2. They are humble.

Next, a courageous question creates vulnerability. When you say, "What is the greatest obstacle?", you acknowledge that there is a hindrance and you want to hear about it.

The idea is to ask questions that implicitly say, "I know I'm not perfect. I know I can improve." This is a strong message — if you sincerely mean it. In turn, it gives your team permission to grow with you, while also making them feel safe in sharing real feedback.

Don Yager, chief operating officer of cloud tech company Mural Corporation, likes to consistently ask his frontline team: "What are our policies that suck?" That humble question quickly identifies anything that's getting in the way of progress.

3. They don't respond — yet.

This is where well-intentioned managers often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren't prepared to hear feedback that made them uncomfortable or challenged their pet project. They leap to explain or defend.

Asking for feedback and ignoring it is worse than not asking at all. When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspective.

With many courageous questions, you'll get conflicting perspectives. That's okay. Describe the next steps. If you need time to process and then respond, tell them when that will happen.

Get quality feedback and unlock great ideas

Throughout our research, we discovered several effective methods leader use to draw out people's raw feedback, best thinking, and new ideas. Here are some of our favorites to get you started:

  • What is the biggest problem we have that no one talks about?
  • What is one thing we do that really annoys our customers?
  • What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
  • What's one thing I must do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
  • What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
  • What are you most afraid of with this program/project/process?
  • What is the biggest source of conflict you're having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
  • What's the biggest saboteur of our success?

It will take time. The first time you ask, people will probably be tentative. But with regular courageous asking and responding, you'll unleash better ideas for a brighter, bolder future.

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the co-founders of Let's Grow Leaders, a leadership training firm with clients including Amazon, Microsoft and National Institutes of Health. They are also co-authors of "Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates" and "Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul."

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