This is an article primarily intended for leaders at or near the top of their organizations. The reason: the rest of you already know what I'm going to explain.
The more time I spend in business, the more amazed I am at how frequently and how badly leaders handicap themselves by not realizing a simple truth: the foundation for every aspect of their effectiveness is a firm grasp of what's really going on in their organizations. Not what they wish, plan, project or orate about — what's really happening, and not, "on the ground."
Anyone with even a passing interest in politics has likely heard how this is one of the challenges facing a President. How the layers of staff, security, protocol and process combine to insulate the holder of that office in what's sometime called a "bubble," other times an echo chamber.
The former connotes simple isolation, a cutting off from information flows about what's going on outside of the White House; the later layers on the additional distorting effect of the administration being fooled by listeing to itself talk.
You don't need to be the POTUS for this effect to complicate and compound your challenges as a leader. The head of an organization of any size bears the same risks, caused by some combination of the following:
- Lower level staff being afraid to bring bad news up the organization;
- The way the "telephone effect" adds incremental distortion with each retelling of a "fact" as it's passed up the line in a hierarchy;
- Senior leaders failing to spend time with the ground troops, actively inquiring about realities and listening, actively, to what they hear;
- Leaders who are so caught up in their own story lines and rhetoric that they form their own echo chamber in which all they hear, in effect, is themselves;
- Leaders who desperately want to believe their plans are working, and are afraid to see if it's so;
- Leaders who purposefully isolate themselves, retreating to their senior teams and executive suites because they're more comfortable there, in their familiar routines involving abstractions and numbers, than they are in the nitty gritty stuff of the business.
Whatever the causes, this behavior cripples effective leadership. How can you make sound judgments if you don't know the true facts of the situation? How can you lead if your credibility is undermined by the quiet snickering of your team as they realize you don't really know what's going on? You can't.
As vexing as this problem is, its solution is simple. Get out of your office and talk with all layers of your team, one-on-one and in small groups preferably, and engage in an honest two way dialogue about the business, as they see it. What's working? What's not? Why? Are things trending positive or negative? You may have to do this for a while before your team fully opens up and trusts, and you need to be careful not to cut the legs out from under your middle management, but this simple process works.
Not only will your decisions benefit from better information, and your credibility with the troops improve, your team will be and feel more engaged in the business.
While you've likely heard about this issue before, (it's behind the "Management by walking around" idea), I thought this reminder might be useful and timely.
Do you know what's going on? Really?