“Advice for the Leader-lorn” is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.
Today’s question comes from A.Y. who writes: “I’ve recently come into a company in a Senior VP position. It didn’t take me very long to observe that morale among the managers and staff isn’t up to what it might be. In fact, people seem to be pretty demoralized. In my last company, we used “skip-level interviews” with staff to hear what was really going on two or three levels down in the hierarchy. I’d like to do the same here, but the moment I mentioned the idea, people turned pale, fumbled for their Blackberries, and excused themselves to head to a meeting (and people here absolutely hate meetings!). I get the feeling that jumping in to this program may not be the best idea right now, but I’d still like to know what’s really going on. How should I proceed?
Your powers of observation serve you well, A.Y. You’ve saved yourself a lot of time filled with awkward moments, and your staff painful facial muscles as they feign smiles and pleasantries. Skip-level interviews can be an effective means of hearing “the truth,” unfiltered by layers of management well-trained in obfuscating corporate-speak. But as actor Jack Nicholson famously reminded us, “the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” And many employees can’t handle delivering the truth, especially when the implications of the uneven power relations are not perfectly clear as being safe.
Your previous company seemed to have made good use of skip-level interviews, the opportunity for more senior leaders to reach down into their organization and spend some quality, one-on-one time with employees farther down the reporting hierarchy. It’s likely that the organization culture was one of openness and safety. No one there had ever experienced reprisals from their direct manager (or manager’s manager) for reporting anything other than a rosy picture of complete competence. The culture was probably a strong learning culture in which reflective learning accompanied every decision—without witch-hunts, post-mortems, or the type of inquisitions meant to ensure that “this (whatever may have gone sideways) will never happen again.” In a culture of Appreciative Management with Positive Leadership, all levels of the organization expect to hear frank exposition of what’s really going on from everyone, irrespective of their level of responsibility or seniority, and positively reinforce that openness and honest. I would go so far as to say that in such a culture, skip-level interviews are likely unnecessary, since everyone typically knows what’s “really happening” anyway, through regular check-ins in an environment of individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.
The reactions you’ve received at your new company suggest that it may be too soon for a person with legitimated authority – you – to embark on a program that requires a high degree of trust and safety to be effective. Everyone knows that it’s not safe to talk to strangers, and in the context of that organization’s culture, you are still a stranger. My invitation to you is to begin slowly in your quest for knowledge. There are likely those who are organizationally close to you whom you can ask first for frank opinions about what needs to change to improve the work environment—your admin assistant (if you have a person in that role) or other person in a relatively lower-level position. Follow through on your promises to them and you begin to build trust. Next, hold a mini-town hall meeting among those people’s organizational peers and listen deeply to their experiences of the organization. Find an opportunity to give them autonomy and agency in enacting the changes that will make their roles more effective and more satisfying.
After that, spread out to those of higher hierarchical rank who are connected to the ones who are beginning to trust you, again listening deeply, granting autonomy where possible, taking the opportunity for action whenever you can. By all means, recognize and reward those who speak the truth – especially difficult truths – and invite a strong “culture of inquiry” to emerge. Rinse and repeat until you notice that people are regaining the colour in the faces and putting away their Blackberries when you approach. Only then will you have gained sufficient trust and established the requisite safety for skip-level interviews to succeed.
Except by then, you won’t need them to know what’s really going on.