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Can You Help Your Leader Handle the Truth?

No matter how much I read (and write) about employee engagement and good management practices, it still amazes me how seldom employees share effective critical feedback with their management. This is not the usual whining, whinging, bitching, gritching, and griping that goes on in workplaces. Effective feedback includes data, analysis, and recommendations for improvement that benefit the organization, not just the unhappy employee.

The ability to share critical feedback is a clear marker for employee engagement. Employees always have opinions, and always manage to share them with each other in the break room or at happy hour after work. But many employees are hesitant to share their real thoughts, suggestions, questions, or criticisms for fear of a negative reaction (and don’t most of us have at least a small negative reaction to negative feedback?) that leads to full-blown management disapproval.

And then there are employees who are nearly bursting to share the truth of their observations, with full confidence that once their findings are known and their views registered, of course management will take appropriate action and things will get better.

An Out-of-Office Adventure

Early in my career, when I was 22 and an up-and-coming whippersnapper, I was one of those starry-eyed employees. I had identified some behaviors by several senior managers in the organization that were erratic, peculiar, or downright dysfunctional — the kind of quirks and habits that made other employees, who were less naïve than I was, fawn, hide information, misdirect, overstate progress — or even ignore management altogether.

Being a logical and curious young person, and very pure of heart and ideal, I was truly puzzled about how this situation could be allowed to persist — on both sides.

It happened that the owner’s wife was away one evening and he invited me to have dinner with him. Nervously, I accepted (no, don’t worry, this isn’t that kind of rude awakening story!), and after pleasantries and some internal debate on my part about whether or not I should have a glass of wine or an appetizer, he asked me how things were going at work.

I can’t remember how I decided what to order. But I knew this was my chance to help make a difference to the business, and I wanted both it and the owner to be successful. And I was sure that the organization had to get out from underneath some of the oddities and obstacles I had noticed.

Speaking Up; Backing Down

So I gathered up my courage and made some general, somewhat oblique references to a few of the behaviors that had “surprised” me or that I was “confused” about.

Well, talk about being surprised and confused — the owner laughed. And then he launched into a detailed discussion of just how weird each of the senior execs was — which was to a much greater extent than I was aware of myself — including personal commentary that I really didn’t need to know.

I was shocked, a little crestfallen, and definitely sobered. Now not only could I not fulfill my fantasy of saving the company for him, but it appeared that the guy did not want his company to be saved. He already knew there were problems, yet did not want to take any steps to remedy the flaws and faults that were so obvious.

How could he possibly be willing to live with so much inefficiency, disruption, and nuttiness, seem to relish it, and maybe even to feed it?

Helping Leaders Take the Next Step

Now after many years of experience, I have come to understand that leaders often know a lot more about what’s going on with their staff than they let on — but they also often tolerate bad or dysfunctional behavior because it has some kind of utility for them, or because it just looks too difficult to change.

Rarely does new data suddenly create a magical transformation. But if leaders held ongoing, candid conversations with employees, and made supportive attempts to identify what works and what doesn’t work, then the persistent bubbling up from beneath might have a better chance at sparking a gradual, evolving kind of improvement.

Empirical evidence shows how hard it is to make this happen, or it would happen more frequently. How can leaders ask for the truth — and stand to hear it? How can employees present the truth, even when it feels uncomfortable and risky? Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of the options.

Onward and upward,


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