This post was originally published on September 9, 2011.
Following a recent talk in which I presented my Change Reaction(s)™ model (note: The name has since changed to the View Finder Perceptions Model™), somebody asked me a question that I have been contemplating ever since. The person asked what to do when a leader is...
satisfied with the way things are, and refuses to accept that employees are not experiencing the same level of satisfaction?
The leader in question, as I was led to understand, did not respond kindly to any attempts by middle managers to discuss issues employees were facing. I heard this as a shift in the leader's reaction mode from a place of satisfaction to one of resistance. This shift was likely prompted by a lack of flexibility to hearing alternative points of view and by an unwillingness or inability to understand the world beyond his or her personal perceptions.
What can be done under such circumstances? Do direct reports have a duty to bring issues, such as employee dissatisfaction, to the attention of their leader? If yes, how do they get the point across, and, more importantly, how does one get the leader to accept uncomfortable or difficult information without being attacked as the messenger?
An earlier blog post talks about how difficult it can be for people who have been, as I called it, living in a bubble, to come to terms with a new reality. In cases where the person living in the bubble is the leader of a group, whether a team, department, division or company, the unfortunate person to succeed in bursting the leader's bubble can find themselves in a very dangerous position, which can often end badly for them.
When pondering this conundrum, I remembered a line from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The main character wanted to go to college, but her father was adamantly against it. The mother volunteered to intercede. When the main character suggested that, as the head of the family, there was no point in trying to change the father's mind, the mother responded, "the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants."
What if we took this example and applied it to the workplace by switching the father for an organization's leader, and the mother as the leader's direct reports? Can direct reports, as the neck, steer the direction of the leader?
Later in the movie, the mother devised a scheme by which a problem was presented to the father, with the hope that he would come up with the solution that the mother, daughter and aunt had already reached. They leveraged their knowledge that the father would want to feel as though he had come up with the solution in order to achieve the outcome they desired.
Sound disingenuous? Perhaps it is, but when a leader refuses to accept or believe information that is crucial to the ongoing performance or success of the company, could such an approach be a way to get him or her to refocus away from their resistance towards a potential resolution of the issue at hand? If a leader is unwilling to trust the observations or pleadings of direct reports, he or she is likely more willing to trust a solution that they come up with themselves.
A burst bubble is like a wake up call, and it often leads to new perspectives and new behaviors.
Here are a few tips for working with a leader in a bubble:
Focus on the leader as expert. Experts are often flattered when asked for advice. By bringing the situation up as a problem, one in which you're asking for the leader's advice and not urging action, you are more likely to engage the leader in the problem-solving process without necessarily bursting their bubble.
Mix up the messengers. The more people who approach the leader with problems and advice, the more likely the leader is to, in time, recognize potential issues that might require more attention. This allows a slow deflation of one's bubble, in lieu of a more turbulent bursting, and is less likely to result in unfortunate victims of circumstance (aka metaphorically shooting the messengers).
Stay vigilant to the leader's reactions. If a leader's bubble has deflated, he or she may be more interested in, and/or willing to hear about issues to which they were previously resistant. They may also wonder why nobody brought these things to their attention before. This can be perplexing and frustrating to those who have made several attempts to do just that. The leader, however, was likely unable to digest such information when in the happy space of their bubble, so be prepared.
If the leader's bubble has burst (rather than slowly deflating), they will likely demonstrate a more extreme reaction by shifting to a place of distress. They might become a bit withdrawn, and possibly moodier than usual as they work through the elements of their new reality. This is often a difficult place for people to be, leader or not, as it is often accompanied by questions of self-adequacy or self-blame for not having noticed those issues that others saw first. Leaders in this reaction mode require support through empathy, and knowledge that they aren't being negatively judged by others.
A burst bubble is like a wake up call, and it often leads to new perspectives and new behaviors. In the case of a leader who was previously oblivious to the plight of his or her employees, this can lead to changes for the better, so remember this as you weather the storm.
The most effective leaders learn from their mistakes, so whether their bubble slowly deflates, or bursts, they will likely learn from their experiences so it doesn't happen as easily again. For those leaders who aren't so effective, such an experience could result in few changes, detachment and/or entrance into another bubble. At that point, the question is, how much longer do you want to work for this person?
What experiences have you had with leaders in a bubble? What, if anything, did you do (or try to do), and what were the outcomes? Any other tips or advice on how you've handled such situations is also very welcomed!
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