Two Terrifying Exercises that Might Foist Your Team toward Greater Candor and Innovation

Asking for direct, critical feedback is
terrifying. Of course, not knowing
what you're missing is even more
Photo used with
permission via Flickr
Here’s a fun little exercise for you.

I’m just kidding. The idea is terrifying.

Maybe you should do it anyway.

Imagine assembling your leadership team in the room, and then taking turns answering this question:
The one thing I absolutely do not want you to know about me is ___(fill in the blank)___.
Then, once you’ve spat that out, ask your team to answer this question about you:
The most powerful negative feedback I have for you is ___(fill in the blank)___.
Is your heart racing yet, just at the thought? What would they think of me if they knew ….? Could I really handle hearing the worst my team has to say about me? My most ugly character trait?

These exercises came from Shawn Riegsecker, the CEO and founder of Centro, a software firm recognized by Crain’s Chicago as the #1 best place to work. He offered the exercises to a room full of executives, with the suggestion that they try this with their senior teams. (For that last question, he always has a psychologist in the room to facilitate the conversation - and everyone takes a turn in the hot seat.)

The idea, he says, is to experience these extremes in a safe environment so that you know the worst. It’s out there. They were able to say it. You were able to hear it. And you survived.

In this case, survival means you have created a team where trust, safety, and candor are possible. And in that context, you can expect some creativity, some innovation, and some strong employee engagement to result. Certainly it makes candor more possible - and more valued - in future team meetings.

"We're basically lying to each other all the time," Riegsecker told the leaders gathered at the Executive Breakfast Club of Oak Brook's monthly meeting. And when that happens, when we're always holding back part of the truth, we are also unintentionally putting ourselves and our companies at risk in ways we might not realize. Creating an environment of trust and candor makes it possible for leaders to speak up, to be a voice of opposition. While it sometimes seems criticism creates conflict, it can actually lead toward greater stability.

Maybe you’re thinking this exercise should come with one of those television captions that read, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Riegsecker admits the exercises don't always go well: he's had to host long listening sessions in his office, to deal with the fallout of hearing the truth. But if the end result is greater candor, and an environment where risk is minimized and innovation can grow, it's worth it, he says.

I am not advocating testing these exercises at your workplace. It wouldn't make sense in all company cultures or with all teams. And even where the exercises might make sense, they should not be approached without some solid advance groundwork to establish a safe environment. But if the thought of these exercises terrifies you, then there are a few more questions for you to consider privately:

  • What are you afraid your team would say about you?
  • Is there a reason you haven’t respectfully discussed your negative feedback with individual teammates before? 
  • What will be the end result of keeping “the thing you don’t want them to know” from your team? 

Tackle those questions today.
Amber Johnson is the CVDL's corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist.

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