6 Tips for Curing CEO Disease

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Leaders in all areas of the business world suffer from “CEO Disease,” meaning they’re at risk for getting vague, reassuring, less-than-honest feedback from their employees. If you’re one of them, the bad news is you’re probably not making the best decisions for your company. The good news is that even if you are “diagnosed” with CEO Disease, it’s curable!

Typically, people aren’t comfortable being candid with the boss. When the boss has CEO Disease, the problem is even worse. But, if you adjust your own behavior and put the right mechanisms in place, people will be more likely to give honest feedback. You’ll need to be patient—your team’s ingrained attitudes about you and their place in the organization won’t change overnight—but eventually the dynamics will shift.

Ronald Reagan, aptly nicknamed the Great Communicator, deftly warded off the presidential version of CEO Disease. Following are six strategies inspired by Reagan’s example to help business leaders fight and eradicate this epidemic in their own organizations:

1. Make sure you’re ready to hear the truth.

Getting more accurate and timely information from your employees sounds great…and it is! But leaders be warned: Do not to ask for better feedback if you aren’t truly ready to receive it. Understand that the process of curing CEO Disease won’t always be comfortable for you. In fact, receiving truly—perhaps brutally—honest feedback might be downright painful.

2. Ask your people to speak freely. (And mean it.)

While announcing “I want to improve the way we all communicate” won’t cause much immediate change, it’s still very important to tell your employees how and why you’d like their feedback to evolve. Be sure to give them explicit permission to bring up points that might not make you, the boss, very happy. And make sure they really, truly have permission to do so without negative repercussions—otherwise, you’ll emerge from this little exercise with employee perceptions of you worse than they were before.

To begin, have candid one-on-one conversations! Call people into your office individually. Explain that you want them to be the best that they can be, and that you want the same for yourself—but that you need their honest assessments to improve. You and they will feel more comfortable opening up the lines of communication in a more private setting.

3. Manage your reactions.

Increased honesty between you and your employees won’t always be comfortable. But it’s crucial not to react with anger or defensiveness. Whether it’s as big as a blow-up or as small as an eye-roll, a negative reaction to an employee’s good-faith feedback can ensure that you’ll return to receiving half-truths and murky platitudes. Unless an individual is malicious or insubordinate, be careful not to penalize them for what they say. Strive to be diplomatic and thank employees for their feedback, even if it was hard to hear or if you disagree with it.

4. Ask the right questions.

Remember that your employees are in uncharted territory, too. Even if they’re on board with treating your CEO Disease, they may not know how best to help you. You can get the ball rolling by asking three specific questions: “What should I do more of?” “Less of?” “Is there anything I should add?” Listen carefully and learn from the answers.

The exciting part is that these questions work just as well in your personal life with friends, family members, and even children. In a recent talk with my 18-year-old son, who was about to leave for college, I asked, “Since I want to be the best dad ever, I want to know how I’m doing. What should I do more of? Less of? Add?” My son said to me that the thing he appreciated the most was that I had asked him this question throughout his entire life—and I had listened and reacted appropriately. And he was grateful for that.

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