I Ask For Input, And All I Get Are Blank Stares

i ask for input, and all i get are blank stares 1

Have you ever sent a presentation, or any document for that matter, to someone and asked for feedback and ideas? Was their response “It looks great”?

Let’s look at the real value of that response by comparing it to something we can all relate to, food. Popcorn may seem like a good choice if you’re trying to eat healthily. However, once you dig into the nutritional value, you learn it’s just empty calories. The “it looks great” response is just an empty compliment—no real value. If you want input with some actual worth, you have to be willing to get into the details, ask questions that probe deeper, and then listen to the answer. Then you may realize the value of that feedback.

I was working with a coaching client who was told he needed to be more open to input and ideas from others. He was naturally surprised because, in his meetings, he did ask for input but instead got nothing but blank stares. Sound familiar?

Learned helplessness and other unintentional ways leaders prevent feedback

Leaders want self-starters who are passionate and engaged who offer ideas and share their perspectives. The irony is that sometimes as leaders our ‘ behaviors actually get in the way of our team members doing this. The biggest culprit in an organization is something called “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness originally came from the animal kingdom and occurs when an animal (or person) is continually exposed to an aversive situation they cannot avoid. Ultimately, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and act as if it is entirely powerless to alter the situation. Even when the prospects of escape are given, this learned helplessness will prevent them from taking action. An example is when a baby elephant is kept chained for many years and can’t escape. They then will not try to escape once they’ve grown strong enough to break the chains because they have become accustomed to feeling powerless.

The same thing happens in organizations when team members feel like their ideas and input are not heard or their perspective is not important.

Sometimes this learned helplessness is a result of a leader who creates an authoritative environment with little individual autonomy and control. Even the best intended leaders who don’t intentionally create that environment often do things to shut people down or dissuade them from sharing their ideas. The reasons for this can come from several ineffective approaches:

  • “Here are my ideas; what are yours”? When the leader gives their opinion first, team members may feel the decision has already been made, their opinion would be threatening to their boss or are afraid of being ridiculed publicly, so the team shuts it down. As a leader, you may actually want your employee’s opinions, but you have just unintentionally shut down dissention or additional inputs.
  • Making quick decisions. Sometimes speed is of the essence, but if you really want input from your team, soliciting feedback without truly listening and considering their perspective signals to them that their opinions don’t matter.
  • Insisting things be done your way. When a leader signals that there is only one right way – there way, this causes people to disengage. If you are constantly being corrected or told how bad something is, the natural tendency is to withdraw and possibly not provide input for fear of a negative response.
  • Blowing off your employee’s ideas. If you are looking for a way to inhibit feedback, then the quickest way to do that is ignoring their input. You aren’t always going to be able to implement a team members ideas, but it is critical to listen and if you don’t adopt an idea suggested by a team member explain why.

Learned helplessness can have several side effects, the least of which is compliance without commitment. Think of compliance without commitment as just meeting the minimum requirements instead embracing a quest for excellence. It’s about your people being “all in” instead of “simply going through the motions.”

building a team of proactive employees 1

What can leaders do to encourage input?

Here are four approaches you can use as a leader to encourage input and idea sharing from your team members, whether you inherited a team with learned helplessness or you have inadvertently created it yourself.

  • Ask more questions and listen longer. It is hard for many people to listen, learn, and understand others without responding and correcting them. Encourage discussion and dialog. Ask thoughtful questions. Know when to go first and when to be the last to give ideas and input.
  • Sometimes, it’s okay NOT to be perfect. Having a bad hair day is not the end of the world. People will accept you for who you are, flaws and all. that making a mistake is OK , which provides model behavior for your employees to follow and increases their willingness to take a risk.
  • The same goes for minor mistakes and imperfections your team might make. Pick your battles. Seek out opportunities to use the ideas and input from your team even if it is not perfect. It’s important to let your people have even a small victory.
  • Find opportunities to delegate, but delegate effectively. Not everyone is a good fit for every task, so it is up to you as a leader to make sure people are prepared to take on autonomy. Delegation is a science that needs to be done with the individual in mind. As leaders it is our responsibility ensure we set people up for success.
    • The individual needs to be competent and have the skills to do what you ask.
    • Success comes from defining it. Be clear on the objective and outcome you want.
    • Give them the control they need to take on the responsibility.
  • Implement the team’s ideas and suggestions whenever you can. Look for opportunities to take the team’s recommendations and consider using them when possible. When you do not use someone’s idea or suggestion, explain why. Acknowledge that you have heard the idea and explain why you are making a different decision.

Becoming a better leader requires building new habits

While it takes time to build new habits, sometimes leaders need a nudge to move forward. A structured program, like a 360 review, is an excellent tool because it allows leaders to receive input from peers, colleagues, and employees in an anonymous format. With a qualified individual to administer and consult on the program, your leaders can understand their strengths and weaknesses and how to address them.

The next step in your journey is to explore how our leadership effectiveness programs can help your organization develop leaders who can build trust to allow others to feel comfortable providing their ideas and input. Contact us to discuss how we can help.

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POSTED ON: Leadership