Friday, May 2, 2014

a hard question to ask - and answer

Tomorrow is graduation at Concordia University Texas, and many of my students will be walking across the stage.  I can't wait to shake their hands, wish them God's blessings, and then begin following their careers and lives post-college.  But there was a task I needed to complete before the hoopla takes place - the infamous "exit interviews."  While I am not able to get to every student, I am able to talk with a few and get their opinions (good and bad) about the Concordia University, the College of Business, the classes they took and the teachers they had.  The interview always includes a question that is both hard to ask AND hard to answer.  Near the end of the discussion, I look at the student and ask, "Is there anything I may not know that I should know?"  Sometimes they have a puzzled look, and I need to flesh the question out for them a little bit, explaining that I am not able to know everything that is going on, and if I am aware of those things (again - good or bad) then I can actually address them.  They think for awhile and then proceed to respond with things that sometimes I know - and sometimes I don't know.  I won't bore you with the details of what I have discovered through that question or the changes that have been made because of those discoveries.  Needless to say, they can be eyeopening at times.

So why is this question hard to ask and answer?  Consider the following:

  • when I ask the question, I am opening myself up to receiving knowledge that could rock my world
  • when I ask the question, I do not have any control over what the student will say
  • in order to ask the question, there has to be a safe environment for the student to respond truthfully
  • when asking the question, I am, in some ways, putting the student on the spot
  • asking the question has the possibility of hurting the relationship between myself and the student
  • when answering the question, I have to decide how truthful I want to be
  • when answering the question, I am putting my reputation at risk
  • when answering the question, I need to know that I am safe in that time and space
  • if my answer leads to others' reputations being put in jeopardy, I risk their trust and friendship
  • I need to consider whether the person asking the question is coming from a place of best intention
  • I need to believe that what I say will be held in confidence
All leaders have a blind spot - both about themselves as well as others.  Asking this type of question helps to reveal those areas of concern and weakness that perhaps only the leader can begin to address.  One other aspect of why asking this question is so hard...when you get an answer that does rock your world, you will need to act on the information.  If a student, employee, or colleague reveals something that needs addressing, they will watch closely to see how you react - and then how you act.  You had better do something...and then follow up with that person if you want to keep your credibility.

So it's time to ask the hard question - and if you are ever on the receiving end of the question, go ahead and answer it in a way that improves the organization.  Your truthful and honest answer could make all the difference in the world.

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