The holiday gift-giving season just ended, and there were probably many moments when a gift was unwrapped and a smile of excitement faded into a look of puzzlement or disappointment. We’ve all been there, and depending on the coaching we’ve received, our reactions as both the gift giver and receiver vary from curiosity to anger to fake appreciation.
In our work at DORIS, we pause in the middle of our process and present leaders with the challenges their employees experience in the workplace. While leaders ask for this information, it can feel like opening a beautifully wrapped box, expecting a necklace, and finding a Joni Mitchell CD. We view these challenges as opportunities; it’s much easier to tackle a problem that’s well-defined. We present these challenges as a gift, but we know how difficult it can be to focus only on what is wrong and are full of empathy for these leaders as we outline their workforce’s challenging experiences.
Over the years, we’ve observed with an ethnographic eye as leaders take in our reports. We’ve learned a few things that can predict who will find success and make meaningful change and who will not. It comes down to a leader’s ability to maintain an open mindset in the face of challenging information. We have assembled a list of observed behaviors that enable or detract from one’s ability to achieve an open mindset.
Open-minded leaders do these things:
◗ They ask why—a lot. They approach challenges with curiosity.
◗ They are engaged in the meeting and talk less than they listen, setting their phones aside and resisting the urge to check emails.
◗ They empathize with vigor. We’ve seen this to the extreme, with some leaders becoming emotional when learning about their employees’ negative experiences. Or they simply say, “I wouldn’t like that, either!”
◗ They separate themselves and their identity from the challenges. This one is the hardest, especially when they feel responsible for the challenges their workforce faces. Leaders who focus on the impact, rather than the intention, of their decisions will find success.
◗ They take time to reflect and ask for help. It is natural to feel emotional upon encountering a list of challenges, especially when some feel larger than any person or organization can tackle. However, the most successful leaders push past their knee-jerk reactions and lean on other leaders or their people to devise ways to address the challenges within their capacity.
Closed-minded leaders do these things:
◗ They dismiss or diminish what is presented, saying it doesn’t reflect reality. They fall back on their own experience as evidence that different experiences are invalid.
◗ They disagree and want to fight the relevance of the presented data. This often looks like asking, “How many people really said this?”
◗ They focus more on justifying why things are the way they are instead of accepting that change is possible.
◗ They argue that they’ve tried fixing the problem before and nothing ever works.
◗ They cannot separate the challenges from their intentions and see everything as a personal attack.
As with many things, the outcome is generally better when anger is minimal and curiosity is abundant—which is hard to remember in the moment. Think back to Emma Thompson’s “Love Actually” character when she opened that Joni Mitchell CD. Yes, she didn’t get the gift she wanted, and yes, she cried, but she gained clarity about her marriage, helping her decide how to move forward.
Similarly, leaders might expect to receive different insights from their workforce, but if they can accept the reality of the gift given, they can move into the future with clarity and, possibly, a kick-ass soundtrack.•
Julka is founder of Indianapolis-based DORIS Research, which uses design thinking to organize workspaces.