I was working with the president of a business once and he was describing to me how all of the employees had committed the business' value statement to memory and that every sales associate would start their conversations with customers using the value statement. That way the customer clearly understood how the business could meet their needs. I left the president’s office after the discussion and walked down to where some of the local sales associates were sitting. I struck up a conversation and then asked one of them about their value statement. The response I got was “oh that’s on that card we are supposed to keep handy in case the President or one of the VP’s stops by right? I know I’ve got it here somewhere”. Not one of his closest advisers was willing to tell the president that the value statement he had personally worked so hard to make part of every client conversation was usually stuffed in a drawer somewhere and largely forgotten.
The president had been lied to. He was a competent, successful leader but he was making his business decisions with bad information. And not just about the value statement.
“Lie” is probably a little harsh. Often people are not intending to be deceitful but the reality is that when you are in control of the career and compensation of anyone, it’s highly likely that they will respond to you in ways that they believe will make you happy. Sometimes it’s a subtle difference, sometimes it’s a dramatic recreation of the truth, but almost always, it’s not the stark clarity that you need to lead effectively. This doesn’t just happen at the very top of an organization. It happens anytime there is a manager, subordinate relationship.
What is interesting to me is that most leaders are completely confident that they are getting the real truth and have surrounded themselves with people who are completely straight with them. The work that I do allows me to see both sides and have conversations at all levels of organizations and in my experience that completely honest dialogue is a very, very rare thing. Even though virtually every leader I’ve worked with believes it to be the case. They will tell me that “I’ve been very clear with my people and they are completely honest with me even if they know I’m not going to like it”. That’s when I know the leader is most at risk. To solve a problem you have to be aware of it.
Once you are aware, you can do some things that will put you in one of those rare situations where you are getting the whole truth and can run your business with the facts, not the scripted presentation.
• Work tirelessly to create a culture where trust is present This is not easy and it means that the leader has to trust his or her people first. He or she has to consistently deliver information accurately throughout the organization. The more a leader filters information that they share with their team, the more it will get filtered coming back the other way as well. There may be things you can’t share, but don’t sugar coat the ones you do. There is a huge difference between having a positive attitude when solving a tough problem and “positioning” the problem so it doesn’t seem tough. When news is bad, admit it, then start working on a great solution.
• Reward the messenger As long as it’s accurate, you should publicly reward the people who tell you the hard truths about your business and your customers. Too often these people get punished or positioned as “negative” when they are simply sharing the facts that will lead to a better solution. Try something like “ I want to thank Susan for bringing this situation to my attention, now we can all get to work on fixing it”.
• Make it easy to be completely honest with you Most leaders tell their team to be honest with them but those words are useless if everyone feels like they have to hide under the desk to escape the eruption after you get bad news. Your team will respond to your actions, not your words. Thank the people that bring factual information to you. Ask them for more details, truly appreciate that they are doing something that is very difficult and takes courage. In essence they are risking their career to do what’s right for the organization and for you.
It’s human nature to want to share the good stuff with the boss and cast the bad stuff in a less than accurate light. It’s also human nature for a leader to respond with a smile when good news is delivered and something much less pleasant when it’s bad. Any leader who shoots the messengers though, even unintentionally, soon ends up making decisions with faulty information. Don’t limit your ability as a leader by limiting your knowledge of the situation. Be one of the rare ones who operates with clarity about the present. That’s the first step to creating a great future.