Maybe you’ve seen the news: Apparently, Vladimir Putin is being misled by his advisors who are afraid to tell him that his ill-conceived attack on Ukraine is not going well. While I shudder to think what decisions Putin might make if he knew the truth, this situation is not surprising, since the Russian President is notorious for literally killing the messenger.
While Putin clearly represents an extreme version of the issue, he is far from the only leader who does not hear the true story of what is happening in the field.
For example, early in my career in the supermarket business, I dropped in unannounced on one of our rarely visited Connecticut stores while in the area for a family event. As I walked through the store on my way to the manager’s office, my wife — who waited for me near the bakery — was treated to some great theater as staff scrambled to quickly fix a merchandise presentation that was in very poor shape, hoping that I hadn’t noticed.
This kind of thing — showing the boss a highly polished, atypical version of reality — is fairly common. Just watch a few episodes of “Undercover Boss” and you’ll see that what the higher ups believe is happening does not always reflect everyday business on the ground!
So, how do you make sure you have a true picture of your organization’s reality?
1. Get Out of the Office
John LeCarré famously wrote: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” He was writing about spies, of course, but the same applies to leaders of organizations.
That’s why it’s important to make a practice of spending time where customers/clients experience your offerings. Further, the more frequent and unannounced your visits, the more likely you will experience what the real situation in the field looks like.
It’s also helpful to consider the impact of your visits. Back in my supermarket days, my field supervisors and I made it a practice to visit our stores regularly. While there, we asked questions and offered advice, while also pressing to make sure the stores were following our overall guidelines and standards. Because we focused on more than simply uncovering failings and noncompliance, our visits were welcomed and resulted in driving effective operations across the chain.
2. Don’t Shoot the Messenger
I often hear of leaders who say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” In theory, that’s a great concept — an invitation for others to participate in leadership and make positive change.
However, with some problems, your staff may not feel confident about their ideas. They may not know if their fixes are good ones or if they are ones that you might approve of. Maybe they don’t even know what’s required to fix a given situation.
Whatever the specifics, their willingness to raise concerns about things that are not working is very much a function of how you’ve reacted previously when given bad news. If they don’t feel safe bringing up challenges, they won’t.
In effect, you need to consider whether you are leading through respect or through fear. If it’s the latter, you will always be presented with a sugarcoated version of the truth.
3. Accept Responsibility and Seek the Lessons
This point is related to the one above. If your first reaction when faced with a problem is to try to figure out who it was that messed up, you will discourage people from bringing things to your attention.
Of course, many management books and articles on innovation and organizational success talk about the need to “embrace failure” — to accept that some things won’t work and that when they don’t this is a great opportunity for the organization to learn and improve.
In practice, though, this is easier said than done. Few leaders are truly skilled at forgiving even small failures from the team, let alone embracing and leveraging them.
Consider that perspective the next time a misstep occurs. The failure has already happened, so actions can’t reverse history. But… you can pull the group together after the fact to determine how the problem might have come about and what can be done to keep it from happening again.
Here as well, you team will take its cue from how you respond.
Every enlightened leader professes a desire to “know what’s happening in the field.” After all, you can’t very well guide an organization into the future if you don’t have an accurate picture of where it stands today.
It’s your staff, however, whose eyes and ears are closest to what’s really going on. If you want to understand that reality — the good, the bad, and the ugly — you’ll need to create and reinforce a culture in which it is not deliberately hidden from you.