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Don, one of several vice presidents of engineering at a large software company, knocked on the doorframe to the office of Jim, his chief technology officer. Jim waved Don in. “What’s up?” Jim asked Don.

“Would you like some feedback on that project review meeting we just had?”

“Umm, sure?”

“My new engineering manager, Donna, raised several points that you blew off, completely disregarded. Until Sally raised them.” Sally was one of Don’s peers, another vice president of engineering. “Then, you immediately affirmed their importance and changed your plans accordingly.”

“I don’t believe you.” Jim was proud of the meritocracy he believed had built and constantly encouraged. He could not believe he was making decisions based on the speaker’s rank rather than the rightness of their words.

Don took Jim through four separate examples where Jim had done just that. Jim refused to believe. So, Don pulled up the meeting recording and replayed those segments for Jim. Jim sat back, clearly stunned. “I don’t believe I did that. I mean, clearly, I did; the recording makes that clear. But I was so sure that I only ever pay attention to what’s being said, never to who’s saying it. Have I done this before?”

“Yes, Jim. In pretty much every meeting.”

Jim hit his desk in frustration. “Dang. Thank you for telling me. Are we all doing this? Or just me?”

“You’re the only one I’ve noticed.”

“Well, shoot.” Jim sat in silence, contemplating his worldview crumbling down around him. Then, he sat up straight and looked Don straight in the eye. “How do I fix this?”

“How do you want to fix this?”

“Well, first I need to apologize to Donna. To everyone in the meeting, actually. To the whole company, probably. But definitely to Donna.”

“She will appreciate that.”

“Then, I need to find a way to stop doing this. Hmm….how do I notice myself doing something I don’t notice I’m doing?”

“Would you like a suggestion?”

“Yes, please.”

Explicitly invite feedback

“At the start of each meeting, you could assign someone to watch for and point out when you do this.”

“I like it. But, I’ve proven to people that I will ignore what they say if they aren’t the most senior people in the room. Why should they believe me on this?”

“Own up to what you did. Explain that you’re working to change that habit. Describe how you’d like help, and ask whether anyone is willing to do that during the meeting.”

“Nice. I like how that asks them for help, rather than forces them to help. And if no one volunteers?”

“Then ask someone in the meeting who is senior enough to not be scared of you.”

Jim chuckled. “How do I know even you and my other directs are that? I mean, you’ve experienced me doing this before. Why are you just telling me now?”

“That’s a fair question, Jim. I guess this time felt so egregious, and I wasn’t caught up in everything else going on in the meeting.”

“Well, I’m not going to blame you. I could have regularly asked you and everyone else whether you feel safe giving me feedback. And noticing whether you do. Because you might not feel safe telling me you don’t feel safe. I’m adding that into my 1:1 template.” Jim tapped on his keyboard, making the note, then turned back to Don. “Okay, so, great. I’ll have someone in each meeting letting me know when I ignore a suggestion from someone only to heed that same suggestion when someone with more authority repeats it later on. How should I have them tell me? I want to be sure I’m won’t ignore them as well.”

Make giving you feedback easy

“What signals will you be sure to heed?”

“They could raise their hand, but nothing about that differentiates that they have this feedback for me from they have something to add to the conversation. I could give them a red card? I like the act of giving them something to get my attention. That makes it more official. Clearer that I’m giving them permission to interrupt me.” Jim sat back in his chair, which caused a rude noise to erupt. Jim grimaced, then laughed, and Don laughed along with him.

“That gives me an idea,” Jim snapped his fingers. “I’ll get some kind of noisemaker, like those ‘ah-ooh-ga’ horns cars used to have. I’ll definitely notice that, no matter what else is going on.”

“Love it,” Don said with a smile. “It’ll add a bit of levity to the situation, too. That’ll go a long way to helping people feel comfortable giving you this feedback. And, as you say, the ceremony of handing it to someone at the beginning of the meeting will demonstrate how serious you are about this.”

“It may still take people a while to believe I am serious about this,” Jim said thoughtfully. “That’s okay. I’ll do as you suggested and start by asking for volunteers. Then, I’ll ask my admin, Adam, to be my fallback. He’s always in every meeting, anyway. And he certainly isn’t scared to give me feedback. When people see him interrupting meetings with an ‘ah-ooh-ga’ from the horn, hopefully that will give others the courage to take on the role in subsequent meetings.”

“That’s a good approach,” Don agreed.

Appreciate the feedback you receive

“Thank you, Don, for being willing to give me this feedback,” Jim said, moving around his desk to shake Don’s hand. “I appreciate you helping me be the leader I say I am. And now, I’m going to ask Adam to find me the most obnoxious horn he can find that won’t make us all deaf. Then, if you have anything else, my attention’s all yours again.”

“Now that you mention it, I do have a few other things to discuss. Also, you should let the company vote on which horn is most obnoxious, without telling them what it’s for. I’ll enjoy listening to the speculation.”

“That’s a great idea. Be right back.”

As Jim left to speak with Adam, Don sat back in contemplation. “Now why haven’t I ever given Jim this feedback before? And where am I doing something similar? Questions for my own next set of one-on-ones.” Don pulled out his phone to send himself a note while waiting for his boss to return.

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