“Why aren’t my people just honest with me?” my client lamented. “I keep finding out what’s going wrong far too late!”
It’s a common and serious issue. The larger the organization, the more important it is for key information to travel quickly from the front line to management. But if that cycle takes too long, it delays changes, and the costs add up. Many businesses relentlessly survey their customers, but that feedback is often unreliable.
Your best source for critical information is almost always going to be your employees… except when it isn’t.
The Reason Employees Withhold Information
My client wasn’t getting the info he needed, and he was understandably frustrated.
“I listen to them. I’m generous with time and money. I’m compassionate. I don’t get it,” he went on.
What he said about himself is all true, about 95% of the time. But every once in awhile, when someone challenges his take on reality, he gets triggered. He becomes defensive and angry, bullying his way through the conversation.
Of course, nobody’s perfect. You might say, “Well, if he’s a great leader 95% of the time, that should be good enough.” I wish it were.
Let’s compare the scenario to an abusive relationship. Though you might picture abusers doling out ongoing, daily emotional or physical violence, this is not usually the case.
The reality of most abusive relationships is that everything goes quite smoothly until the abuser gets triggered. Then, they overreact. They’re often quite apologetic afterward, making assurances it won’t happen again. Such abusers can be above-average in their expression of love, care and affection. It’s just those rare moments when they’re triggered where they lose control. This is one of the reasons why, on average, it takes a victim seven attempts before leaving for good.
Managing The Manager
What does this have to do with the boss-employee relationship? While a manager may not be “abusing” employees, if they demonstrate occasional unpredictable and frightening behavior, the effect is the same. Though the manager may only be angry for a moment, the employee understandably will constantly carry the fear of it happening again.
The employee, as an act of self-preservation, learns to “manage up.” They decide what to tell (or not tell) their manager. They wait for their manager to be in a good mood before bringing bad news. They spin the truth to avoid triggering their boss.
In other words, the employee takes responsibility for the emotional state of their manager. This fear results in feelings of disrespect and resentment toward the manager.
Only an even-keeled, emotionally responsible manager gets to expect total honesty from their employees. As a manager, you have to be that way 100% of the time. That’s the bad news.
Repairing The Damage
The good news is that the process of getting there can be transformational. If you’ve ever vented your frustration at an employee, and you think it might be causing them to hide things from you, try having this conversation with them:
Manager: There’ve been incidents in the past where I’ve gotten frustrated with you, and I want to apologize. I don’t think it’s ever OK for a manager to vent frustration with an employee, and I’m concerned I’ve created an atmosphere of fear that negatively impacts you. What has been your experience?
Employee: Um, well, yeah you do sometimes get frustrated, but I understand why.
Manager: I appreciate that, but I’m holding myself to a higher bar. There’ve been times when you haven’t brought mistakes to my attention, and I think the reason might be because you’re afraid of how I might react. You shouldn’t have to worry about that.
Employee: I do sometimes worry about upsetting you.
Manager: That’s it. I want to change that. So I’m going to do my best to stay calm no matter what. If you’re afraid of how I’m going to react, I’d like you to say that directly to me, because I admit it’s a challenge for me. How does that sound?
Employee: I’m relieved to hear this. And I’ll work to be more courageous and not hide things from you. That’s been my side of it.
Manager: That’s very responsible of you to say, and as your manager, I have the larger contribution. I’m glad we had this conversation. We’ll keep talking about it. I don’t want there to be anything we can’t talk about, and I know it’ll take time for us to get there.
Set The Highest Bar For Yourself
Let me reiterate the high bar set here. You never get to express frustration with an employee. Even if you think it helps you make your point, or “get through to them,” the risk that they’ll carry it with them forever is too great. It’s difficult to repair those mistakes.
Frustration is a completely optional experience. Coming to that realization, however, takes soul-searching work, radical self-honesty, and the willingness to look in the mirror in every aspect of your life.
Here’s a baby step to get you started down that path. Ask three people who know you well to write a few paragraphs about the most positive ways and the most negative ways you impact them. Impress upon them that you are looking for total honesty and that they won’t hurt your feelings. Tell them if they don’t tell you something you didn’t already know, that you’ll ask them to do it again.
We like to tell ourselves that we behave with honesty and candor, but often, we unconsciously skirt the truth unless we have an intention to do otherwise. Most people default to choosing comfort over truth. In the long run, this is what destroys many businesses.
The article above was originally posted on Forbes.