Who's Really Going to Tell the Boss They Have an "Ugly Baby"?

06/09/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2017
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In too many cases…no one.

As a corporate trainer working with teams and individuals throughout the organizational hierarchy, I couldn’t help but see former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee as one of the most public examples of an insidious but common dilemma that virtually all organizations face – staff hesitancy to speak truth to power.

Indeed, the questions about why Comey didn’t immediately push back on the President if he disagreed with his comments while fair given the gravity of the situation felt oddly naïve at the same time. While it’s certainly reasonable to expect members of the intelligence community to speak truth to power, watching the former FBI Director appear to struggle with this issue just highlighted the significance of the problem.

The truth is that while members of the Senate Intelligence Committee might have been shocked and perplexed that he didn’t immediately tell the President that he was uncomfortable, disagree vehemently, and/or abruptly end the meeting, I suspect that many every day Americans completely related to the feeling of not wanting to disagree with the boss. I also found it refreshing to hear Comey’s simple, candid response to Senator Feinstein’s question “Mr. Comey, why didn’t you stop and say Mr. President, this is wrong – I cannot discuss that with you”? He simply replied (in part) “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have…” Although he did go on to detail valid steps that he took to address his concerns, I couldn’t help but think….If the Director of the FBI finds it difficult to push back to authority, what should we expect of the everyday Joe Blow?

Indeed, it’s naïve at best to expect staff to regularly push back to leadership; therefore, the key to establishing a true culture of candor (without regard for hierarchy), lies with leadership. They must set the tone. Unfortunately, in my experience most leaders fall into one of two categories.

1. They don’t realize that they don’t have a culture of candor. They think all that great news they get is actually true. They don’t realize that the information they receive may be severely filtered/sanitized to remove anything that they might perceive as distasteful.

2. They really don’t want push back from rank and file. They pretty much like having “yes men/women” around them and want others to mostly to be a rubber stamp for their ideas….because they know best after all.

Creating a culture of candor within an organization isn’t easy. Ultimately, it fights against a seemingly primal, Darwinian instinct that so many of us have to agree with the boss, avoid pushing back to hierarchy, and save our own hide in the process. The ultimate benefits though of having a culture of honesty and candor can be immense. Having that level of blunt candor can not only improve decision making throughout the enterprise but also provide opportunities to address problems in their infancy (before they become too large and unwieldy to correct).

While discussing this issue in one of my leadership courses, one student recalled that it took a college intern publicly questioning why the organization was maintaining two websites when most customers only used one to correct that grievous error. Although others had privately questioned the boss’ directive for two websites, no one had the courage to tell the boss that his two websites idea was indeed an “ugly baby” so they maintained both for years.

For those leaders brave enough to work to build a culture of candor, here are a few tips:

Develop Values that Encourage Questioning

I worked with one organization that included the corporate value – “Questions before consensus”. They felt that they didn’t want their customers pointing out the flaws in their products because they were too timid to push back on each other’s ideas internally. So they embraced this value of actively questioning (even picking apart) new ideas before moving to consensus.

Infuse Push Back into Meeting Culture

One of the facilitation techniques that I teach is called “devil’s advocate”. Here team members rotate a toy police badge and whoever wears the badge for that meeting is tasked with playing the role of devil’s advocate. The toy badge gives them permission to push back or question ideas without concern of retribution. After a while many teams no longer need to use the toy badge because they’ve become comfortable pushing back on each other’s points without fear of retribution or hurt feelings.

Consider Environment for Individual Discussions

When leaders want honest feedback from a subordinate, they should be careful about the environment they choose. As with the Trump-Comey situation, leaders should avoid meeting in their office (their position of power) if they want to encourage honest feedback. Instead, choose a neutral location or the subordinate’s office. Similarly in the Comey testimony, much was made of Trump allegedly clearing the room so he could speak with Comey alone. As doctors are often trained to have a chaperone in the room when conducting an intimate opposite sex exam, leaders should consider having another (ideally objective) third party present (an admin associate, HR, union rep) to ensure the subordinate doesn’t feel cornered/pressured. Be careful though that there aren’t too many senior leaders present which might create a sense of more pressure.

Indeed, none of us should be shocked to learn that in almost every organization there are well intentioned workers who want the best for the organization, but instead of speaking truth to power, they remain silent. In many cases they are strong people, but even the strongest swimmer can’t swim upstream against a huge current…..it’s the leader’s job to not put them in that position.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.

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