On a recent trip through yet another airport, I passed a man whining into his phone: “I cannot take any more bad news! I cannot!” It’s possible that he was having a terrible conversation about a personal tragedy. But it seemed much more likely that he had just hit his quota of annoyances and frustrations for the day. This particular call probably put him right over his limit, and he couldn’t think of a more creative response than kvetching.
Some executives treat bad news not only as a marker for subordinate negativity, but as if it were proof of disloyalty. It’s as if the very mention of something negative — the very sharing of bad news — suggests that the subordinate is trying to undercut or make trouble for the leader.
These querulous leaders make clear by their comments and behaviors — sighing, dismissively returning to their papers or screens as if the subordinate wasn’t even there, or even literally turning their backs on their audience — that they’re unwilling to hear bad news, and that by bearing bad tidings, employees may be committing a risky and punishable offense.
What an amazing way not to deal with reality!
Deflection is sometimes employed as a technique by managers who prefer not to engage with the real problems in their area. Whether their refusal is an indication of rigidity, lack of empathy, or plain old self-protectiveness, once they find a way to devalue or outright ignore the messenger, they can comfortably ignore the message as well.
What this kind of boss wants is for employees to figure out how to skip any bad news unless it keeps the boss firmly in control, meanwhile providing brilliant solutions so that the boss can end up a hero. A person like this is a leader in name only, and the result is an environment that breeds mistrust, squelches innovation, and encourages lots of other bad behavior — both intra and interdepartmentally.
You must know someone who behaves this way — and maybe, from time to time, it’s been you. But you don’t want to be that guy. So how can you make sure that you don’t end up staggering through an airport bellyaching on your cell phone, trying to get your people not to tell you what’s really going on?
Learn to Handle the Truth
If you’re the kind of executive who tends to avoid any so-called negativity from your employees, then you need to learn how to do a better job of listening to bad news, or any informational content that you didn’t specifically request (See Speaking Truth to Power, Part VII: Managing to Listen).
But first, think about whether you’re managing primarily for your own success and good fortune, or whether you’re actively serving a mission, a customer population, and the needs of your employees.
The leader who’s interested only in the former generally instills and ensures a narrow range of both focus and tolerance; the latter creates the potential for collaborative, cumulative accomplishment, not to mention satisfaction and a sense of meaning.
Over the next week or two, we’ll look at this scenario from a few different perspectives: the whining executive who wants to do better; that exec’s subordinates and how they can have impact; and the responsibility of the exec’s colleagues and superiors. We all might feel whiny once in a while. But let it be because we’re just feeling tired and expressing it or we’re cranky because a flight is delayed — and not as a technique for shutting people down.
Onward and upward,