How to Tell Your Leader the Truth Without Getting Fired

By: On May 15, 2018

Dear Team Member,

 

When it’s decision time on your team, what your organization most needs is the truth.  Sadly, the truth is usually in hiding, especially from your leader. 

You and your teammates know things about what’s going on with the business that your leader can’t hope to know.  You live closer to the customer, the competition, the code, the supplier base and the staff than she does. You hear the rumblings in the cubicles. She may have a better handle on the big picture, but you see what’s happening at ground level.

Now you’re headed into a big decision. You will spend countless hours examining the past, analyzing options, and trying to divine the future. You’ll scrub numbers. You’ll scratch your head. But will it be worth it?

It’s easy to blame your leader for the futility of this process. She’s temperamental and strong-willed. He’s aloof, Spock-like. She’s dictatorial. He’s tightly wound.

But before you indulge in self-righteous criticism that might render you useless to those around you, sit in the Leader’s chair for a moment.  He’s between a rock and hard place. The Rock is his boss – or worse yet, the board. The Hard Place is you.

First the Rock: Bosses and Boards have no senses of humor about missed numbers or wrong decisions. No matter how nonsensical it is, they lay the successes and failures of your company at the leader’s feet. Yes, this gives the leader both too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly. But it’s the world your leader lives in.

Next the Hard Place: That’s you and your colleagues. The Leader often feels lonely, like she’s the only one rowing in this boat.  Yes, she causes a lot of that loneliness because she grabs the oar right out your hands. But emotions, while not always reasonable, are forces to be reckoned with. Don’t let anyone fool you. Feelings dictate a lot more of how The Leader acts than anyone guesses.

 

Emotions affect you, too. You’ll be tempted to try all sorts of feeling-management tactics to handle the truth during this decision-making process.  See if you recognize any of these:

how to tell your leader the truth

The Duck and Cover – It’s easy to play defense when your leader is on a tear. Keep your head down. Don’t say too much. Peek over the edge of the bunker tentatively to see what it’s like out there, then hunker back down. Let’s call it what it is: self-preservation. It’s understandable, but truths will go unspoken that could alter the future of your organization for good.

how to tell your leader the truth

 

The Bank Shot – When the Leader isn’t listening well, it’s tempting to try to bank the truth off someone else. So in a meeting, you talk at someone else hoping that the Leader, perhaps with the shields down, will let your message sneak through. But what if the bank shot hits the rim and falls away harmlessly? What then?

how to tell your leader the truth

 

Turning Up the Volume – Maybe you’ve tried to be subtle and clever, but the message isn’t getting through. Maybe you’ve tried a bank shot or three and haven’t yet scored. Now you’re tempted to amp it up with the Leader. If she’s not listening, should you speak LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R? In reality, she might just think you’re treating her like an idiot.

 

You have better options if you want to give The Truth, something so essential to making the great decisions your organization needs if it’s going to make an impact.

  1. Put yourself in the leader’s shoes. Empathy helps others hear you. Think about what he’s trying to accomplish.  When it’s time to tell him a truth, help him see how ignoring this truth will actually prevent him from achieving his goals. Can he accomplish his goals despite ignoring this truth? OK, then show him how he’ll achieve his goals but at a significant personal cost. Either way, your attitude is that of a friend trying to help someone get important stuff done.
  2. Pick your spots. Even the most self-aware Leader has a limit on the difficult truths she can face at any one time. Maybe you have Ten Truths to share. On stone tablets.  Pick the top two. Making it manageable helps others hear you.
  3. Choose your setting. Do you want to raise hell? OK, push back against the Leader in a big, public setting. But if you want to maximize your chances of a positive reception, perhaps a quiet word in private or on a break from the meeting would work better. Sharing truth in safer places helps others hear you.
  4. Choose your words. A friend told me of an executive who was hesitating to make a bold strategic acquisition. The executive could tell that one of his key team members was troubled by the situation. “What do you think?” the executive asked. “I think you’re acting like a scared accountant,” the team member said boldly. Those eight words of truth shook the executive into action. Choosing words that strike home helps others hear you.


While simple enough, none of these things are easy.  It’s easy to duck and cover or blow your top.  But your organization needs The Truth if it’s going to rise as high and shine as brightly as possible. So gather your courage and give it to them. #TruthWins

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Be Bright.

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