How do you respond when the subordinate of someone who reports to you says, “I need to talk with you about what’s going on in our department”?
How do you respond when an employee says, “Can I tell you something in confidence”?
A leader typically wants to engender a sense of openness in the organization. She wants all to know that she’s approachable, trustworthy, caring, and reliable. He wants to avoid situations where employees are sitting with frustrations that can lead to disruption, or worse, valued people leaving. In the leader’s anxiety about these kinds of outcomes, he/she will tend to become over-involved in the tensions between others. So the leader’s automatic reaction when questions like these are posed will be:
“Of course you can talk to me!” or
“Certainly, you can trust me to keep it to myself.”
What is so risky about these quick responses?
• They immediately activate a triangle between the leader, the one speaking, and whoever else is involved.
• Whatever the tension or issue between the other two, the leader has already committed himself to secrecy, if not explicitly, at least implicitly.
• He has already agreed to engage at some level, to intervene, to work toward resolution, even if it is only by listening.
• Unknowingly, she has opened the door to assuming responsibility for the resolution of the issues between other people.
• She has set up a trap in which she may be told something that must NOT be kept in confidence – e.g., what if the person reveals that someone is stealing from the company, or that someone is behaving in an unethical or illegal way? If there has been a commitment to confidentiality, actual or implied, the leader may now be in the position of having to break the pledge just given.
• Perhaps most importantly: He has begun to undermine the authority, credibility, and stature of his subordinate manager.
It could be that the employee approaching the leader has something very innocuous, perhaps even complimentary to say. Without knowing, the leader needs to be reserved about any pledge. How is this done in a way that is respectful of the person speaking AND respectful of this person’s immediate boss?
In responding to either approach, the leader must first manage his/her tendency to be the compassionate hero, capable of and willing to soothe all who are uncomfortable at the moment. Over-functioning leaders tend to take upon themselves responsibility for regulating the emotional temperature throughout the company, for being the healer, the problem-solver, the mediator, judge or rabbi. (The leaders most susceptible to this super-responsible stance likely grew up in a household in which the parents were frequently drawn into the disputes among their children. They were sought after as referees on a frequent basis. Not only does this complicate the situation by introducing the parents’ own emotional biases, but perhaps more importantly, the children are taught a subtle lesson: When in tension with another person, appeal to a third party rather than seeking proactively to resolve it on your own.)
Having noted these tendencies and held them in check, how does the leader respond in a caring, compassionate, helpful way, one that respects both the person speaking as well as any others involved?
1. In response to comments like the first (“I need to talk with you…”) the leader might ask some clarifying questions, e.g.:
• Have you talked with your boss about this?
• Does he/she know that you’re coming to me now?
These questions uphold the priority of this person’s relationship with their immediate boss. They convey the message that the leader will not undermine that boss’s position. These questions do leave the door open for more discussion if certain conditions are met. If the person balks at the conditions, the leader can still offer coaching on what that person might do next to broach the subject with his/her boss.
2. In response to questions like “Can I tell you something in confidence?”, the leader needs to catch that immediate impulse to say “Of course!” and instead give the more tentative “It depends.” This will open a conversation about the conditions under which any leader would be obliged to act on information (e.g., illegal, immoral or dangerous activity). The leader can then ask questions similar to those mentioned above.
3. Finally, consider adding to each individual’s job description a responsibility such as this: “You are responsible for managing your relationships (with others in the organization, with customers and suppliers), in an open, honest, direct and respectful manner.” This explicit inclusion in job expectations lays the groundwork for an open culture and gives the leader a reference point for requiring people to resolve their concerns directly.
The intent of an Open Door Policy is certainly legitimate. These reflections are meant to help insure that, in its implementation:
• Primary relationships are upheld
• Honesty, directness, openness and respect are promoted throughout the organization (i.e., not just with the top person)
• Those who work there embrace their own responsibility for direct, open, honest, respectful communication, even when to do so might be uncomfortable.