Mum's the Word

A story dominating the headlines right now is whether President Donald Trump knew of a program wherein the Russian government offered bounty payments to Taliban soldiers who killed American servicemen and women in Afghanistan. When it was first reported, the Trump administration denied any knowledge of it. Credible reporting has persisted, and it appears his advisers may have known about the program as early as February. As much as Trump tries to deflect, saying that the intelligence was never credible enough to rise to his level, experienced professionals say otherwise. Further, as has been reported elsewhere, Trump does not always react well to intelligence contrary to what he wants to hear.

Not a good leadership strategy. (Photo: Creative Commons, John Snape.)

It remains unclear who is telling the truth. A fuller investigation should be able to determine that. The focus of this post, however, is how leaders suffer when vital information is withheld from them. If it is true his advisers did not adequately brief him because of how he might react, whether or not he was interested, or whether or not it was credible, Trump will have succeeded in creating the very environment any good leader or manager should strive to avoid.

I have had the opportunity to lead various teams, projects, and initiatives, and more than once important information arrived at my desk too late to mitigate the damage. Fortunately, this never happened in an environment like the disclosed bounty program, but real consequences followed in the form of overruns and plenty of embarrassing reports to stakeholders. In one instance, an on-site manager shared the poor performance of a project well after problems began to appear. I immediately shared it with the director of the office I supported. Unfortunately, he was moments away from heading to Capitol Hill to testify in front of a Congressional sub-committee, which embarrassed us all.

In her book, On My Watch, Martha Johnson, former Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), explores what she calls “leading in the dark.” She talks about why, as it circulates at lower levels, information is sequestered at lower levels for fear of overreaction. Rightly or wrongly, teams learn that reporting a problem to a leader or manager might simply make things worse. They also fear a disproportionate reaction wherein everyone suffers because of the bad judgement of a few.

Unlike wine, bad news does not get better with age. (Image: Sutterstock.)

In my experience, there are three things a leader can do to mitigate the strangling of vital information and encourage frequent communication of “trouble spots.” Doing so not only maximizes the window of time within which action can be taken to mitigate damage, it helps create a more open and productive environment up and down (or laterally through if applicable) the team.


The first is to model an environment of openness with respect to bad news. Alan Mulally was a star executive at Boeing who moved over to Ford Motor Company in 2006. When he arrived, he saw a disconnect between the company’s performance and the summaries presented by department executives. His briefings were full of “green lights,” hardly ever a red or yellow light indicating a problem. Still, the company bled money. Mulally soon realized a pervasive culture of fear wherein executives feared for their jobs. So, he insisted all briefings focus on pain points and trouble spots throughout the company. He knew Ford could only be saved by focusing there instead of what was going right. Eventually the company turned around and accelerated to the top of the market because they stopped avoiding bad news. That isn’t to say victories are never celebrated. But if a team focuses only on the appearance of a well-run machine while ignoring the problems that lie beneath, then frustration, humiliation, and failure will follow in short order.

In addition to encouraging the flow of unpleasant news, a good leader or manager can institute a reporting structure that allows such information to flow freely throughout the team and find its appropriate resolution point. In other words, if a problem lands on your desk, it should be because no one below you could handle it. That encourages subordinates to communicate with team leadership in a way that can keep the team leader informed of an issue, but only spending time on it when absolutely necessary If said leader has the luxury, installing a gatekeeper (e.g., deputy, Chief of Staff, etc.) can reinforce the practice of ensuring information is dealt with at an appropriate level. In addition, when a potential problem first arises, an effective deputy can help ensure it is properly run to ground while ensuring it stays on the leader’s radar in an appropriate fashion. Such follow up may result in a non-issue. It might also confirm the problem and help maximize a leader’s time and latitude in resolving it.

Say what others don't want to hear. You might stop a war.

Spontaneous visits to the offices and desks of team members is another way leaders can help break the stranglehold on bad-but-important news. It not only exposes potential problems; it provides the leader with a more granular understanding of team members’ daily experience. In his book, It Worked for Me, Colin Powell describes how he, while Secretary of State, snuck beyond his security detail to roam the department and strike up conversations with employees of all stripes, even the parking garage attendants. His world was the high-level stuff of headlines and important meetings. His walkabouts gave him a better understanding of the organization supporting him. It allowed him to ask questions, to understand what was going on, and maybe gather information that is staff might not otherwise tell him about. When a leader intentionally breaks the traditionally defined space of their role to spend some genuine, off-the-cuff time with others, they can find a wealth of information that serves them and the team.

These are just a few mechanisms a leader can employ to make sure vital information is communicated up and down the chain of command. It is not an exhaustive list, and if you know of another way to address this challenge, I would love to hear it. Of course, once solved, the next step is for a leader to encourage others – at their level, above them, and below them – to do the same. Teams the world over, not to mention their clients and consumers, will benefit when leaders take simple steps toward more accountability and showing some backbone in the face of difficult and potentially embarrassing information. It might not seem like a big deal, but as we are seeing in the news right now, it could literally save lives.

-.-

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© 2020 by Mark Konold