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Creating a Work Environment without a Need to Go Over the Boss’s Head
– By Dr. Arron Grow
A career advice columnist recently asked me if I felt an employee should ever go over their boss’s head? The author was thinking of examples such as an employee having a product idea that the boss ‘didn’t get’ or if a team member has a strategy for landing a new client that the boss didn’t support. Listening to the columnist speak, it became clear he was looking for one of three responses; yes, no, or maybe. I replied with a fourth option. “Why don’t we get leaders to foster work environments where employees do not feel like they have to go over a boss’s head?” The columnist was not interested in exploring this possibility, so I will take up the question here. My experience tells me there are two most common situations that lead employees to want to go over a boss’s head: when a supervisor is seen as a bad supervisor and when even a good supervisor is perceived as not listening.
In certain situations where a leader is seen as bad, they may even be seen as toxic. For a variety of reasons related to this, an employee will want, or may need, to go around them. It would be nice if this situation was relatively rare. Unfortunately, research suggests that this is not the case. Instances of toxic leaders or toxic leadership are often the result of a combination of factors. Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser (2007) have identified what they call the toxic triangle. This triangle has three components that lead to toxic leadership; a person with a penchant for unhealthy leadership tendencies, susceptible followers i.e. team members who allow unhealthy behaviors, and work environments that condone or perhaps even encourage negative working conditions.
In this blog post, I shall set aside instances of illegal actions on the job, power abuse, substance abuse, unethical behaviors, and anything like unto it that often define toxic leadership situations. These instances illustrate times when it is appropriate for a team member to go over a leaders head or to Human Resources to discuss such things. Instead, I want to focus on those who wish to be true leaders who will do what they can to ensure they are leading from a foundation of healthy human interaction. When this happens, even those who find themselves overseeing susceptible team members or those who work in a negative work environment will still be able to overcome this triple threat of divisiveness. Here are a couple of strategies that can help leaders avoid playing into an environment that may be susceptible to toxic tendencies.
- Share Information: Many in a less healthy work environment will be reticent to share information. In a toxic work environment, they will be this way because they have likely seen adverse consequences fall upon those who do share what they are thinking or feeling. If open communication is not the norm, no doubt it may take a while before team members believe that open communication is okay, but after consistent experiences of non-reprisal, open communication should happen more often.
- Be a Harvester of Information: Consider all information as just that; information – data that one would rather know than not know. This is true regardless of the form the information is received (e.g. suggestions, recommendations, ideas, counsel, and all related types of input). It’s the judgment that people put on information that often adds often unnecessary affect. This is connected to the first recommendation. Open communication has a chance only if one takes this attitude regarding that which is shared.
Even in work environments where employees may be willing to share and where there are good leaders who want to do the right thing, there may still be issues. Leaders often think they are listening when in fact they are not. Employees know what real listening looks like and they know when it’s not happening. If they feel they are not being heard, they will seek a listening ear elsewhere. To remedy this, leaders must be more attentive and mindful.
Here are a few suggestions that can aid in this arena:
- Be Attentive: Leaders, good leaders, make sure their team members know that time with them is their time alone. An attentive leader will not be looking at their computer screen, the clock on the wall, the floor, and certainly not the door while a team member is speaking. Leaders who wish to encourage team members to come to them will do what it takes to ensure team members that when they are with them, the leader’s total focus is on the team member.
- Confirm Understanding: There are many methods available to help ensure a speaker is being understood as intended. Which method to use will be up to the individual leader. The important point is that a strategy is used; that subordinates feel heard and understood.
- Be Assuring: A leader may not be able to use every idea that comes to them. Help team members understand that although an idea or recommendation may not be used, it is not because it wasn’t heard. Disagreement does not mean dissatisfaction with what may have been said, it just means that a different direction may be needed.
Though it may not be needed, consider for the moment the possible consequences when a leader in the workplace doesn’t listen or support team members. Spencer Silver was almost an example of this. Silver was an employee at 3M. According to the Post-it® note website, speaking of those early days he said, “At the time we wanted to develop bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives. This was none of those.” One of the substances he did create was a sticky substance that could be easily removed from other objects. Silver felt the material could be put to use. His boss supported him and gave him permission to speak about what he had created. Most others in the organization found it to be nothing more than an interesting novelty. After five years of continuing to speak of his new non-permanent adhesive, colleague Art Fry found a most practical application for the adhesive. The rest is Post-It® note history. Now to the question, what if Silver’s boss had fostered a ‘my way or the highway’ policy? What if the boss’s attitude was, ‘If I don’t see a need for this, then there is no need for this. Don’t you dare go around me.’? We all know the answer to these questions. One of 3Ms most popular consumer products, indeed one of the most popular office products of all time, may have never made it to market.
So should an employee go over a boss’s head? I think not. With concerted effort in the right areas, leaders can ensure that team members never feel as if they have to go over a boss’s head. Doesn’t this seem like the better way to go?
Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 176–194.
Post-it® Note notes. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.post-it.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/PostItNA/Home/Support/About/