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How to Stop Suppressing Your Staff’s Potential

In last week’s post, Don’t Threaten Me with the Truth, I suggested that managers make themselves ineffectual when they try to avoid the bad news that is part of all organizational and business life. Executives who censor or silence the day-to-day challenges, the customer problems, the border skirmishes, the legal constraints — whatever is real and messy — do damage to their people and their organizations.

These execs create an artificial environment that ignores the real needs of customers and employees, stifles innovation, and blocks healthy growth.

They may abuse their authority through techniques like whining and ducking, forcefully redefining others’ opinions to make themselves look “better,” and claiming that everything is perfectly fine when everyone else knows it’s not. Costly organizational impacts include excessive turnover, absenteeism, and “presenteeism,” as well as in-fighting, backbiting, rumormongering, and other symptoms of negative management culture.

Categorizing the Harm

If you’re playing this kind of role, maybe it’s because you can’t stand your job or your boss. Maybe you’re afraid people will find out how inexperienced you really are, or you’re concerned about surviving challenges from other departments or competitive executives. But now you’ve decided it’s time to adopt some more mature managerial tactics. Or maybe you’re recognizing the need to shift your approach because you’ve just gotten some tough feedback.

Either way, start by observing your staff to spot the negative reactions and identify which of your behaviors are causing those responses. Then you can make the conscious choice to interact differently — and notice whether you’re sliding back into negative patterns. Look specifically for three kinds of unproductive emotional reactions from staff:

  • Fear: If employees think they’ll be punished for bringing bad news, they may try to work things out on their own, or worse, they may hide information that could trigger negative reactions from you.
  • Overprotectiveness: If employees are self-confident, compassionate, or generous they’ll try not to bother you. This is very risky; they can become accustomed to helpfully suppressing information that could be crucial to running the business.
  • Apathy and dismissiveness: If they assume that their views won’t matter to you they won’t even bother trying to keep you in the loop. Instead, they’ll focus on flying under your radar.

Instead of Doing a 360, Try a One-to-One

You don’t have to go asking everyone for terrifying feedback. Even before you decide to approach a trusted colleague or to ask for “executive coaching,” you can acknowledge the problem to your own self, and think about its roots.

Why would you want to be excluded from crucial information? Because you’re already feeling overwhelmed? So you don’t have to ask for help from colleagues? So you don’t have to do tasks or hold conversations you expect will be very unpleasant? Or is it because you don’t believe that others can ever do things well enough, so you have a terrible choice between what looks to you like failure or necessary micromanaging?

Have a conversation with yourself about your true concerns, and try to address them:

I want to hear the truth, or I want them to tell me the truth, even though…

  • I’m afraid I won’t be able to fix the problem.
  • I’m afraid my management will be dissatisfied, no matter what I do.
  • I might have to acknowledge my own inadequacies publicly.
  • I’m afraid someone is trying to take my job.
  • I won’t look like the smartest one in the room anymore.
  • I can just ride it out the way it is, and I don’t want to bother.

Actually, if it’s the last one, you really don’t want to change. But for any of the other concerns, think about how to share your trepidation with someone inside or outside the organization, and how to talk about your need for counsel, coaching, or mutual support to be able to make room for others’ participation and considerations.

This glimpse of self-knowledge is only the beginning. Please do check out more ideas about how to recognize the negative behaviors that cut off and shut down your staff, understand more about the negative consequences of those behaviors. And explore some techniques to get your folks to start talking to you again.

Onward and upward,


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