Managers Be Warned: You Can’t Handle The Truth!

The “Open Door” Policy

I’ve always been an ‘open door’ manager. My team knows that. And they’re salespeople – they’re not the type to be timid with their opinions.” I was talking with a Sales VP who I’ve known for more than 15 years. He’s a very personable and approachable professional and was adamant that he’d be the first to know if there was any discontent in his organization.

“So you haven’t lost any of your top talent in the last year?” I asked. He paused; looking unhappy he said “Well, yes. Three of my strongest athletes moved on in the last year.” I was waiting for the light bulb to go on as I said “You weren’t surprised when they resigned, right? Because they knew they could always come to you if they had an issue. After all, your door was always open.”

Suddenly, he got it. “No they all caught me completely off-guard, and by the time they had accepted other offers, it was too late.

Just because you think your team can talk to you about anything doesn’t mean that they will.

It’s Not About You (Unless It’s About You)

Good leaders make it clear to their teams that they’re not looking for sycophants and “yes people.” They want candid feedback – about the business, the company, and even themselves. Those leaders project a culture of openness where people feel comfortable sharing their perspective even when it isn’t positive.

Why would someone on your team who trusts and respects you as a leader still not give you “the straight scoop” about how they really feel?

  • You can’t do anything about it – “Big issues” are often larger than any single manager or executive. When I was at Siebel Systems in 2002, raises and bonuses had been cancelled for more than a year. During this time was quickly getting traction in the CRM market and competition from SAP and PeopleSoft was getting more intense. Stock options for some employees were literally $100 “under water.” Layoffs had become a quarterly ritual. Innovation was a distant dream because the company was on a burning platform, forced to stabilize its core technology foundation before it could even consider any enhancements. One of my key people resigned over these issues. She knew that I hadn’t caused the problem but more so that I couldn’t fix it.  “Big issues,” cause loyal employees to give up hope - packing up to move on to TNBT (The Next Big Thing)
  • You won’t do anything about it – If your boss is either:
  • a jerk
  • focused on the wrong things
  • working from a faulty game-plan
  • fear driven

…then he’s probably created a political climate that won’t allow anyone to mention that “The Emperor Has No Clothes” without political punishment. Your team may think that you’re afraid to put issues on the table with executive leadership because you’ll just get labeled a “non-believer” and will become isolated as your own opportunities for influence, promotion, equity, and other rewards vanish into thin air. Your team believes that you’ll “play it safe” and won’t put your own opportunities in the company at risk by raising a voice of dissent.

  • You might actually do something about it – Just because you’re fully aware of a problem, and comfortable voicing it to your manager doesn’t mean you can fully control the “solution” to that problem. I remember when a marketing manager on my team, who worked closely with our Alliances organization, came to me to surface some dysfunction in the working model across the teams. I said, “This is completely fixable and I want to test a potential solution with our CMO.” She was immediately concerned and said “What if she decides that the ‘solution’ is just to move my function out of Marketing and into Alliances? I don’t want that, and it would probably make the problem even worse.” In that moment, she was telling me that she’d rather live with an ongoing headache than risk a radical tops-down solution.

Ultimately, all three of these scenarios boil down to a feeling among your employees that “You can’t handle the truth!” Being open to feedback and communication is great, but it’s totally unrealistic for you to expect everyone to be bold and courageous in raising issues that will put them at risk.

If You Don’t Know About it, You Can’t Manage It

Here are some strategies to uncover concern and misalignment so you can take action before it’s too late.

  • Get anonymous feedback – Find a way to get anonymous feedback. This could be an electronic survey or the old-fashioned “suggestion box” or something in-between. Create a visible way that employees can share negative feedback without fear of consequences. Some of it will be painful to hear, but it will be a lot less painful than when one of the “keepers” in your team says she’s leaving.
  • “Don’t just stand there, DO SOMETHING” – This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. People will only share feedback if there’s some hope of a positive outcome. I remember when an HR admin at a startup company that I had just joined shared the results of last year’s “Employee Satisfaction Survey” with me. The anonymous survey called out a couple of massive dysfunctions in the executive team, including one executive who berated employees and was never open to ideas from his team. I asked “What was done since the survey to acknowledge the feedback or address the issue?” I was horrified when she said “Nothing.” It would have been better not to run the survey at all than to run it and do nothing – which only further aggravated employees for “wasting their time.” That doesn’t mean that every little complaint demands an action from the executive team, but when there’s a widespread issue, ignoring it after it’s been called out dissolves trust in leadership. Taking action will show employees that their feedback matters. And the good news/bad news is that you’ll get more feedback as a result. Confident leaders check their egos at the door and use that feedback to improve. Weak managers use it to identify dissenters and then punish them.
  • Lead by Example – Do you want your direct reports to be comfortable (and brave) enough to come to you with things you might not want to hear? Well, are you willing to do the same with your manager?  What if he’s the CEO?  What about an investor who just put $25M in your company? If there are issues that are negatively impacting the company’s business and you’re not comfortable sharing these with your management, you can’t be surprised that your team wouldn’t share those same issues with you. If you want to foster a culture where feedback is welcomed, then you have to be willing to demonstrate raising feedback that challenges the status quo. Of course, that doesn’t mean bad-mouthing the company or complaining in the break room – that’s not a positive environment for constructive change. But it does mean stepping out of your “safe” zone and taking some risk to drive change that is positive for the business.

How have you provided this kind of feedback to your boss, or tried to gather it from your team? Please share what’s worked for you…


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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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