One of the untruths people often believe is that when you are a leader you have all the answers.

Not only is that untrue, but it’s also likely to self-destruct.

The best leaders seek fresh input and are willing to critically assess their own ideas and presuppositions.

This is a fundamental need because of the irony that once you are the leader you will receive less real-time and candid feedback about what is going on in the team and the organization.

Inviting collaboration with team members and direct reports is one method of testing against internal biases and reality evaluating your thinking.

True collaboration is built on trust so you must be willing to invest relational equity in others to build your feedback loop.

Here are some steps you can employ to create an atmosphere of collaboration with your teammates.

  • Start with a common language. The greatest barrier to hearing a promising idea is two people having a different understanding of the same conversation. It happens much more than you realize. This is why a common glossary of terms describing how people talk about ideas is invaluable. It starts with the leader consistently using the same words and phrases when they talk about mission, values, and vision. When your team hears these phrases and words often, they will inevitably begin to tie them to their own thinking and ideation. This helps set up an understood prioritization of what work matters and helps them to be more confident to share their thinking on these matters.
  • Listen with openness. While this sounds like the single most intuitive piece of advice, offering this is surprisingly difficult. Spotting our presuppositions is tricky because we rarely know they are there. Our presuppositions are what’s natural to us based on our experiences or knowledge. As leaders, we sometimes have access to certain information others might not. We also, too, had our unique experiences that shaped us. Often these work to our advantage. They can, however, also blind us to something that is right in front of us. This happens when we become dismissive of different approaches and fresh thinking. The phrases “It ain’t broke” and “We’ve tried that” are both responsible for prematurely killing many potential solutions to problems or issues on their way to becoming problems. As the leader, one must always have the humility to think someone else on their team might have a better idea than the way it currently is being done.
  • Don’t interrupt or point out weaknesses of the concept immediately. While this one follows closely on the heels of the prior point it is important to call out. It can be hard to patiently listen, especially if you begin to feel the idea is off target. Think of time listening as an investment in the relationship. By patiently listening you are communicating value to that person and increasing confidence for future conversations. In addition, I’ve often found that while an idea might have been off target in the beginning over the course of the discussion some back and forth may start to bring the seeds of a potential solution. Sometimes we risk cutting off a potential solution before it’s even born.
  • Ask open-ended questions on things to which you might already know the answer. Think about the old saying “Don’t tell someone what they can learn themselves.” Asking someone a question to which I already know the answer has been one of the most valuable tools I’ve found. It tends to have two possible results. First, asking the right questions often leads the person to come to the conclusions you already know on their own. This is helpful because they feel ownership in where the conversation ends even if it wasn’t what they originally envisioned. The second outcome I’ve found is it helps save your “no” answers. As a leader, you want to find ways to “yes” to your team, however, being the leader sometimes means you must issue a “no.” These can be risky because they can deflate enthusiasm and buy-in. Asking the right questions and allowing the person to see for themselves why the idea might not be the right solution at this time saves you how many times you have to say “no” to your team.
  • Don’t make the final decision in the meeting. Over the years I’ve found the best way to stay truly open to new ideas and potentially offset personal assumptions is to take some time to let the info sit with me. Often, I will leave the person with a few follow-up questions to explore. I’ve found this can be a helpful barometer for how invested the person is in the idea. Sometimes they never follow up on the request and that lets me know how much they really believed in it. If you don’t need any follow-up actions, give them feedback with a deadline within a few days. This will give you time for your mind to work on any new angles you may not have seen and to formulate an encouraging response. Taking a few days to consider is another way to communicate value to the individual and can also help build up relational equity for future conversations.
  • Thank them, even if the idea is not on target. Not every idea brought to you is going to be the right solution or be put into use. This doesn’t mean this person won’t have on-target future solutions to offer. You don’t want to be cut off by a lack of common courtesy. Take a moment in person, through an email, or a personal note to thank them properly for taking the time to share and commend them for their proactive thinking. It takes a lot of confidence for some people to take the step to share an idea with their leader and you want them to feel like this is an action they can repeat in the future.

Leadership in a vacuum is doomed to eventually fail. As leaders, you will openly want to invite, look for, start, and receive collaboration. It takes time, sometimes even time and energy you may not feel you have, but the return is a more sustainable and successful team culture under your leadership.