Our latest Ask the Manager question got our Executives in Residence plenty talkative. Even our Research Fellows, who rarely step to the podium, had something to say. So we opened this to our full panel.
Note: some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace. The letter is otherwise genuine. Please also note that our panel of managers are all senior staff and thought leaders in their organizations and their professions. We are grateful to have their mentorship, and have masked their identities in exchange for their participation.
Enough disclaimers. Let’s dish.
... I work in an area of [the company where] the managers all come from an area called the... lab. Instead of being one large unit they give all of the credit to the lab. They promoted a tech into management that doesn’t understand the scope of [our jobs] and he hangs with his buds in the lab and in general favors them. ... The Vice President of Operations came for a visit to our... area and she stated that the [recently promoted] tech should have never been promoted to management and that she feels that [the rest of us] have not been represented well [in mgt]. The issue here is my [supervisor], the manager and the Director and some others in the lab are close friends, they have plans to put yet more inappropriate people in these positions not changing a thing. The VP (because she doesn’t see us often) isn’t aware of this new development. She was very sincere in wondering ...Why positions that have been approved were not filled?... I can’t help but wonder why the VP would come in to our unit, say a few odd statements then leave.
... I love my job, I feel that I am a team player and I have demonstrated many times my willingness to go above and beyond. My main point to this query is, does the VP need to know something that she is unaware of. She is an extremely smart person, but again very busy .... How does one inform without being a teller of tales or should I take my husbands advice and just buck up and hope for the best.
~~ Erin B
Caroline Bender: So, a toss-up question first. Is a drop-by from someone of this VP’s stature unusual? Is she fishing?
Monica, Academe: The writer is answering her own question when she says she is wondering “why the VP would come into our unit, say a few odd statements, and leave.” She came because she smells that something is up, and she is fishing for information.
Don, Business Integration: I think it is most likely not some random coincidence that the VP would come around asking for input, particularly if this is not a usual occurrence.
Chris, Human Resources: I'm disappointed that your VP seemed to solicit opinions but did not follow up by providing a safe venue for people to voice them. This makes me question her EQ, and her intent to truly understand the problem. No one makes it to VP in an organization without a deep understanding of how power structures work, and the roles people are forced to play within them.
Gerry, Software Development: it was incredibly inappropriate for the VP to make a public disparaging comment about another employee, true or not. I wonder what she was trying to accomplish with that visit to the group. But that said, she has certainly opened the door for conversation with you and others in your group.
Emilia, Professional Services: As a leader of an organization, I can tell you that it's impossible to be aware of everything that's happening within a group at all times so we're forced to rely on our own observations/experiences as well as information provided by others.
CB: Erin has an agenda, too, doesn’t she? Her own motives aren’t completely objective.
Gerry: [Erin,] I would ask what it is you want to accomplish. Are [the managers] harming the company? Are they making your work environment untenable for you? Are you and your colleagues being harmed financially or personally by your management? Or do you just want to let somebody know it's a bit crazy in that lab?
Don: If you truly feel that this exec is being sincere -- and I recommend that you do because if she didn't care about your input, there is hardly a reason to go asking for it -- then I think this is your chance to do something about your situation. I cannot guarantee that you will move this mountain, but you will gain some peace of mind in knowing that you tried rather than standing idly by as the situation gets worse.
Monica: It is very unusual that she would reveal her opinion that Joe Blow shouldn’t have been promoted and that you’re not being well represented to management. Be a little (just a little) suspicious of this. You need both your approach to the VP and what you offer to be quite casual. You need to sound at least 50% less passionate about what’s going on than what you really feel about this mess.
You need to let her own the reason for your visit/email/phone call: “I am here only because of what you said in your visit to us. I saw in your visit and your comments that you are thinking in some new ways about the organization, and I just wanted to pass along some observations that I thought might be useful as you assess what’s going on. Others may see this differently; for what it is worth, I’ve noticed that .............................”
Don: [Y]ou can keep things at a level that might just make you feel comfortable with what you are doing. More importantly, you can insulate yourself from being looked at (even by the VP) as a “teller of tales.” Something like:
"… At first I didn't feel that I had much to contribute to the conversation, but I have been considering your questions and I wanted to follow up. I really like working here and being part of the team. I want to see us grow and be successful. If I were in your shoes, I think I might want to focus on bringing in some new skill sets to round out the team. We have some great technical minds in our leadership, and a great group of people doing the work. I think for the next set of hires it would be important to round things out by bringing someone in with some outside experience in (fill in the blanks: managing teams, building a business, etc)..."
Emilia: To avoid feeling like a teller of tales or someone who is rocking the boat, [Erin] should
- stick to the facts as she knows them
- avoid getting emotional so she can be as objective as possible
- focus on what positive changes she'd like to see within the group and explain their business benefit
[You can also] get the information to the VP via an anonymous option - filter through HR confidentially, send via an email or letter, etc. With this option, there's no satisfaction of knowing how the information is received or whether any action will be taken at all. Personally, I would lean toward option 1 whether I was the VP targeted to get the feedback or the employee considering the approach.
Gerry: If you do go to her, you need to be prepared for possible repercussions. If there were to be backlash, is she in a position to protect you (for example, is she the VP of Operations, but your group is in Marketing)? Do you trust that she would? Is there a possible outcome that will make things better?
Chris: Sit down and imagine that you have found a way to share your observations with the VP. Then, imagine the worst possible way in which this opportunity could go wrong. Then, make a plan for what you'd do if that scenario occurred. After you've gone through this exercise, decide whether you could live with this outcome. [Y]ou need to be able to live with the consequences if things went horribly wrong. I have been on the end of situations that have gone spectacularly wrong even when I was in the right. And when I say spectacularly wrong, I mean that it went wrong in ways that I would have only joked about beforehand. There's the truth, which is always right, and then there are all the egos impacted by someone bringing the truth to light, and all of the worst in human nature that having your ego scraped can bring. That's the part you have to worry about.
Maybe you decide you can live with the worst case scenario. Maybe you decide to brush up your resume and start looking for another job. Maybe you decide that you'll stay put for now, given this economy, and live with it for a while. The good news is that the one thing that's constant in a business is change. People leave, people join, re-orgs happen, people get pregnant and go on maternity leave - the landscape is constantly changing. And you may be surprised; there may be others at your workplace who are considering this same question. Core problems like the one you describe always have a way of bubbling up to the top eventually. If you can live with the worst case scenario of being the whistle blower, then do it. If you can't, then look for a new job or decide to hang in there for a while because it will change eventually.
Monica: After you drop the dime, add to the script a few of your observations about what is going very well; who is great to work with – smart, responsive, insightful (upper management is always running Talent Search.) Then, end it and leave.
Don: The key point is that you should not be speaking badly about anyone who is currently working on your team. Nor should you call out hiring plans that you know about already in a critical way. My suggestion is merely to discuss what you think is lacking in the team and how your VP might be able to help the situation. If she's sharp enough, she will probably read between the lines and be grateful that you are nudging her in the right direction. If she is more of a literal type, then you will have given her some clear direction that will help her to take some further action. If she asks you to give more details or tell some tales that make you uncomfortable, you can say something like "I have no issue with the people in place now and I don't want you to think I do. I am simply telling you what I think would be a logical next step in the evolution of the team." You might say that you have often thought you would benefit from (fill in the blanks) within the organizational structure. The point is to keep it positive, non-specific, and forward-looking.
Dana, Healthcare: In these types of situations, where you will never have 100% of the available information, I recommend that you just sit tight and do your work. If the wrong people are in the wrong positions it will eventually get noticed...maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually results will start to slip and it will get onto a VPs radar
Monica: After you’ve done this much (but not until you’ve done this much) you might take your hubby’s advice and hunker down, do your work, and see what happens.
Gerry: Good luck. If you think this is the right thing to do, do it. But make sure first that you are looking for positive change, and not just commiserating, and that it is change this VP can help with.
Don: I would recommend that you try and put yourself in this VP's shoes. She, like just about everyone, wants to be successful. She probably knows that in order to be successful, her team must function effectively. She has probably picked up on the fact that some things are not going well. She might have come to this conclusion from listening to what she has been told by her direct reports, from looking at business data that shows that things are not going so well, or from just a general sense of unease that a perceptive manager can feel when something is amiss in the kingdom.
Dana: Meanwhile, do a fantastic job, give 110%, and keep smiling. If things don't change after six months or you can't do it anymore, quietly look for another job and quit the boss.
Have a question for our executives in residence?
Your sticky situations and request for advice are handled by real working professionals at the leadership tier.
Your sticky situations and request for advice are handled by real working professionals at the leadership tier.
Your confidentiality is protected. Write us at a email@example.com