Allow me to paint a picture for you. There is a group of employees sitting around a table. Their manager is at the front of the room “leading” a SWOT analysis of their department as part of the inputs into the organizational annual planning process. The manager indicates to his staff that he is looking for their honest and candid feedback as inputs into the analysis. The employees then begin to provide their individual perspectives and opinions on what the department’s strengths (s), weaknesses (w), opportunities (o) and threats (t) are. The manager, upon hearing what the staff thinks and feels, then begins to override what everyone is telling him. He starts to rationalize and then outright dismiss the feedback from his staff so as to paint a rosier picture of the department SWOT analysis. This ultimately helps him complete the SWOT analysis faster and move on to something else he would rather be doing.
Does this scenario sound familiar? Whether the exercise at hand is a SWOT analysis, business planning session or employee focus group, the manager has attempted to disguise their ultimate communication goal (or end game in this case) from their staff. Whether it is due to the manager’s own insecurity, lack of preparedness or general sociopathic behaviour, they simply do want to hear what their employees’ have to say. Here is the thing, they know that they are ‘supposed ‘ to ask for input and solicit feedback, but they truly do not want to hear and accept the inputs that they receive. The manager is simply going through a check in the box exercise with their staff to show that they have done their job.
Here is the thing, as a manager and as a leader, you either want your employees to be candid with you or not. You can’t ask for them to be candid when your words and actions demonstrate that you are looking for them to be compliant. What managers need to understand is that employees know when their manager truly doesn’t want them to be candid, despite the fact that that is what the manager ‘says.’ Ultimately, this mixed messaging erodes the very fabric of the employee/manager relationship. It completely destroys all credibility and trust that the manager might have had with their employees. At the end of the day, you (as the manager) will be left with a disengaged employee base. Your staff will only do the minimum required to be compliant and keep you off their backs. Is this the type of ‘team’ that you are looking to have?
I have often found that managers exhibit this type of approach when they themselves are doing something that they don’t believe in. For example, say that the organization taps each department head to lead a focus group into improving operational processes. A particular department manager doesn’t believe that the processes need improving, that the processes are needed at all or worse yet, that their employees aren’t switched on enough to provide any value into improving the processes. Regardless, the manager conducts the focus group (because they have to). They dominate the conversation, dismiss the feedback and essentially present their own ideas as that representative of the group. The manager, through their positional influence, has forced the group to be compliant by pushing them into ‘accepting’ their way of thinking while operating under the guise of asking them to be candid. At best, this is a poor management practice that will obviously not build an environment of trust, at worse, it is complete sociopathic behaviour. For more information on identifying sociopaths in the workplace, I encourage you to read this series my Mike Lehr on his blog.
So, for managers, you need to decide what you want. If you want compliance, don’t waste your staff’s time by asking for their input on things. Just go ahead with whatever response you want to provide or whatever outcome you want. Let your staff focus on something else and don’t waste their time. Understand, however, that you will ultimately only be managing a compliant workforce. One that will have zero loyalty, provide the minimum level of effort required and one that will not offer any discretionary effort.
If you are truly looking to lead, and if you want your employees to be candid with you, than you need to understand that actions speak louder than words. It is your obligation to understand and communicate to them what the ultimate goal is you are looking to achieve. Clearly identify what you are looking for from them (in terms of their being candid) and how this will help the team “win.” Then, step back, allow them to be candid and most importantly, as the manager, you need to listen. Stop talking and just listen to what they are telling you. Facilitate the conversation, ask open ended questions and help guide the dialogue and/or “park” items when needed. I think we can all do a bit of navel gazing in this area to see if our words and actions are driving our employees to be candid or compliant. I hope, as good managers and leaders, you are truly looking for your employees to be candid with you. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.