As an industrial psychologist with a large organization, one of Ed’s primary goals is to strengthen the management and leadership skills of the executive team. So a large part of his workday involves following these senior executives as they go about their business and providing feedback to make them more effective. He jokes that people greet him on the elevator quite differently than most folks. Instead of saying, “Good morning, Ed, how are you doing?” they say, “Good morning, Ed, how am I doing?”

Few senior executives have such helpful feedback readily available. The higher an individual goes in the organization, the more difficult it is to get honest feedback about their own skills—and about the work for which they’re responsible.


If you’re the boss, you’re going to get more attention to your preferences, quicker responses to your requests, and overt approval of your ideas. Don’t, however, jump to the conclusion that all this happens because you’re necessarily an excellent communicator, that your requests have more merit than others, that your ideas are fundamentally better, or that all your customers and colleagues receive such responsiveness. If you want honest feedback about how your unit really functions, you’ll have to play fly on the wall.

An executive vice president called recently to ask for help for one of his senior managers who needed to improve oral presentation skills. The boss explained that the senior manager did fine in presenting information and conducting meetings with his own staff. “But he falls apart when he makes presentations to the executive management team. He just can’t handle the questions they toss at him. He fumbles; he destroys his credibility. Worse, he’s technically very bright—has a Ph.D.—but when he tries to explain things in “lay” language, they perceive him to be talking down to them.”

When I later talked to the senior manager directly, I asked him if he’d ever received any comments, either positive or negative, about his presentation style. He responded, “No, never. My boss’s comments about shortcomings with the executive committee were a complete shock. No one has ever commented on my weaknesses in that area.” Then he paused reflectively. “I guess that in itself—silence—is feedback. When you’re good, people don’t hesitate to tell you. When you’re not so effective, they keep quiet because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.” He was right. His tone during Q&A sessions was on the brink of limiting his career, and even his best friends hadn’t told him.


Be aware of the kind of power you have with different groups. You have reward power if you somehow positively influence what will happen to another person. You have coercive power if you can negatively influence another’s future. You have positional power if by your position as boss, director, or dean you can force your will upon another. You have expert power over someone if you have knowledge they need. You have referent power over people if you can influence through your personality. Being aware of these power pockets forces you to take your interactions with certain people more seriously. They will.

If you want to minimize this power and relate to others on equal footing—if you want an honest opinion from them that they may be reluctant to give—you have to remove the status reminders. You may want to sit beside them, not across the desk from them. You want to take off your name badge and introduce yourself by name and forget the title. You may want to join them in the training center lounge rather than invite them to your office on the executive floor.

Rapport-building and honest communication hinge on such small steps.


If you assume your listeners are more knowledgeable than they are, they may misunderstand your message, give up on trying to understand your explanations, or become frustrated or angry because they think you’re “putting on airs.”

A VP at a large oil company attended a training session where he asked the controller to explain to the first-line supervisors and managers in the class how to complete a specific form justifying their annual budget requests. During the opening session, the controller illustrated the budget form, using a figure of several million dollars for purchase of equipment. At the break, the vice president wisely took the controller aside and asked her to lower the dollar amounts so as not to make the supervisors feel small because their responsibilities did not involve such large expenditures. That vice president picked up on an important subtlety.


Before you speak, make sure what you’re about to say doesn’t contain words or phrases that imply your superiority to the other person. The following comments in various situations reveal much about someone’s management style and attitude: “I want you to meet Jana Garcia, who works for me” versus “I want you to meet Jana Garcia, who works with me.” “Haven’t I asked you about the necessity of bothering me with those kinds of details?” versus “I’d prefer that you handle those kinds of details without involving me.” “I try to spend as much time abroad as possible when my job allows” versus “I like to travel when I have the time.”

Honest communication—whether soliciting new ideas, preferences, or genuinely helpful feedback about our own performance or that of our entire department or functional area—flows or dribbles according to our attention to these small but important frames, gestures, and words. The higher, the harder.

Author's Bio: 

Dianna Booher is the author of more than 40 books including her latest, The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know (McGraw-Hill, June 2007), Communicate with Confidence, Speak with Confidence, and E-Writing. She is the CEO of Booher Consultants, a communication training firm offering programs in oral presentations, writing, and interpersonal skills. Successful Meetings Magazine has named her to its list of "21 Top Speakers for the 21st Century." or 800-342-6621.