“The boss is always right,” said the guy sitting behind me in my Project Management MBA class. He was some senior executive in a listed company that made a whole lot more money than I did.
“You shouldn’t question your boss too much and you should just go ahead and get the work done, even if you feel that the job is going to be an utter waste of time. Know who signs your cheques.” he continued.
I looked at him and thought to myself that the statement was one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard in a long long time. I then just shook my head because I realised that his statement, while stupid, was a fact of life in many organizations around the world. Malaysian organizations tend to have this culture of “respecting” the boss embedded in their corporate culture under the guise of “Asian Values“. You will note that I added quotation marks around the two key phrases in the previous sentences. The reason is simple – it’s utter bollocks.
The reality is that many Malaysian organizations create an environment of fear that permeates around a boss that is seen as almighty. I find that rather stupid, not because I’m a pretentious 27 year old manager who thinks I know better, but because people should be evaluated on their ideas not their statuses.
Ideas are like raindrops. Too little, and you get a drought. Too much, and you get flooding. Traditional managers tend to treat this flooding as problematic and a threat to their positions. Ideas are a fountain of wealth. You just need to know how to control it and manipulate it – just like how the Three Gorges Dam taps the strength of the raindrops flowing into the Yangtze River and manipulates it into hydro-electric power.
For the average manager, the “Three Gorges Dam” equivalent to idea damming is to create an environment where people can openly challenge your ideas. This is not easy. If somebody comes up to me and tells me that my ideas are weak, it does hit my ego. Saying that it does not hurt would be lying. But what I’ve come to learn over the years, is that a hit on an idea is not equivalent as a hit on an individual. Attacking ideas is necessary in order to make it stronger. It will also enable management teams to evaluate the potential weaknesses of the concept and prepare a plan that looks at both the strength and the weaknesses of it.
The Practical Ideas To Facilitate Truth Telling
Technically, everybody who was attacking my ideas, was a powerful ally to have around. It meant that they cared. It means that they were truthful enough to stand up and defend status quo because they had a genuine concern that changing it would mean disaster. Because more debates are happening and people are telling the truth rather than sucking up to the boss, the business as a whole benefits because better decisions can be made. The question that I get asked when I’m on my mentoring circles is usually what I have done to facilitate truth telling by employees. The few things that I have done is as follows:
- I’ve created an environment where my leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their people. Because every general is as good as his soldiers, ensuring that my team leaders must look out for their people in order to look out for themselves is an important component of this program. When employees start realising that their leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their needs, then they will tend to be more open.
- I’ve created staff focus networks, with volunteers who feel that they are vocal enough to voice things out to me. They get feedback from the staff and come back to me with the plain truth. The staff are protected and focus networks know that they are only the messengers. What’s interesting about these networks is that they are also a very important tool to for me to test my new ideas or initiatives. If I have an idea or a problem I need help with, I go to the staff networks and ask them for thoughts. I’ve been impressed more than once with their suggestions.
- I make it okay for people to disagree with me as long as they have the facts to back themselves up AND I do not hold grudges over business disputes. What happens in the meeting room or work is what happens in the meeting room or work. It’s irrelevant to the external context as far as I’m concerned. I am also not adverse to saying that my ideas are not working when they fail, and adopt a fast start, fast fail policy. It might bruise the ego a little bit, but it helps keep everybody happy and the business running.
- I have made monthly 1-2-1s with staff mandatory. Yes, all managers must build a relationship with their immediate direct reports and must give their employees unfettered access to them if they need to talk about anything. I’m quite surprised how in many organizations people don’t tend to have this relationships with their employees. This works because not only does it build relationships between people in the organization, it also helps create an environment where people get “access” to their leaders. For example in my organization, any employee, no matter how new/low to/in the organization gets to have a 1-2-1 with their line managers and will be able to pull me aside to ask me anything at any time. It’s personally helped me understand my people a whole lot better and helped my team managers get a better feel of the pulse on the ground.
Your the boss, start telling the truth
But does telling the truth just stop with employees? Many management teams fail to tell their people the truth. Telling the truth is a two way process. If employers want employees to be open, management teams have to be open and honest themselves.
It boggles me when I read about how management teams in many cultures prefer to hide problems rather than deal with it head on with their staff. They use the guise of standardization and business continuity in the name of stability. They don’t treat their people as people and hope that the business will prosper. People.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting down in a mentoring session and a the person I was mentoring asked me a key question. “
Would you tell people the truth if it hurt your organization and you knew you were going to impacted by it personally because your goals won’t be met?” .
Without hesitation, I answered “Yes”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. But I am a very logical person. Whenever people ask me questions on how I would deal with a particular people issue, the first thing I do is put myself in the position of people who are going to be impacted by the question. When I do that, I then start to see a different perspective. After that I try to think what the person who will be impacted by this would want to know. On the assumption that everybody would want an answer that is logical, I do what I think is right. It’s harder to do what’s right and tell the truth than to take the easy way out and hide under the mask of business continuity.
“Yes Suresh, don’t take the high ground. How are you going to respond with the problems that are created after that? Your people would love you but your bosses will kill you and you’ll probably lose all credibility among senior managers.”
What he said made me smile.
“What did you say in the last 5 seconds that made any mention at all about the people who were going to be impacted?”
I gave him that “aha” moment, and the mentoring session ended.
So what’s in it for the boss?
Why should bosses tell the truth. Simple, because it builds credibility, empowers your people and is just a whole lot less work. Really, just blatently telling people the truth works and people like it when their boss is honest. In today’s world where the competition for talent is getting even more intense, that’s a competitive advantage that is HUGE!
Secondly, it crushes the validity of rumour networks. Rumours are rumours because people have no authoritative source to go to for information. When management teams start becoming the authoritative source, the rumour networks start losing credibility and you can spend time doing other things. That’s another great benefit.
And really, bosses should start being more real. Let’s all just get off our asses and treat people like people. That’s the ultimate management differentiator.