It’s time senior leaders put real effort into making it safe for others to tell them the truth
Can you please ‘fix him’? I get asked as I’m sitting opposite the COO of an international bank, referring to a business division head who staff experience as aggressive and abrasive.
My first question is: “Does he know there is a problem?”
I want to avoid my face giving away my surprise and, if I am honest, my critical reaction. I am, though, genuinely astonished.
My next question: “Has he asked for or agreed to have coaching?”
It turns out that there has not been any communication with the individual either about his behaviour or about coaching as a possible way of dealing with it – or whether I might be a suitable coach. I am getting to incredulity now.
The client organisation is the London branch headquarters of a bank with substantial operations across Europe. I am in an elegant, modern client meeting room in a prestigious bank at a first meeting. In the room with me are my long-standing client, now Head of L&D, the HR Director, and the COO.
In the space of a pause for breath, I summarise in my mind the situation I am being invited into. I imagine my introduction to the senior manager. As I stand at his work station, he will be thinking: “Who is this character and what is he doing here?”
I imagine him saying: “How can I help you?” If I was honest with him I would say something like: “I have been asked by your senior colleague to coach you. I know you have not asked for a coach and perhaps have no idea why you are being offered coaching. I am told that you have a problem with your leadership style. The people who work with you find you aggressive, demanding and critical. It has become so serious that your boss and your colleagues have sent me in to get you to change. They did not want to upset you or risk damaging their relationship with you by telling you themselves, so they’ve delegated the task to me.”
I return my attention to the room. The people I’m dealing with are decent, intelligent, competent so how does it get so daft?
The problems are real. It seems obvious to me, as I sit in the meeting, that this organisation like so many others has done very little to enable and support senior people to hear the truth. There may be individuals who are open and receptive, but the culture creates pressure to suppress difficult conversations.
That’s got me thinking how important it is that senior managers are receptive to hearing the truth. Too much of the responsibility is lodged with the person who has feedback to give.
A lot of energy and effort is given to help people give feedback but somehow little is expected or required of the individual who needs it.
I think that needs to change. It’s time senior leaders put real effort into making it safe for others to tell them the truth. The next bit of thinking is…how could they learn?