Leading Up

Jan, a longtime weekend shift supervisor at a large retail clothing store in Alberta, began to receive a large number of complaints from staff when a new manager was assigned to the store. The new manager, Bert, had replaced Susan, who had been well respected by staff and supervisors alike, upon her retirement.

Initially, Bert seemed competent, personable and professional. Jan found him easy to approach, curious about the business and willing to listen. However, as he began to settle into the job, the complaints began. Staff and other supervisors told Jan that Bert often made racist comments under the guise of a joke. He routinely put down gay people and women. Staff feared customers would hear the insults and stop shopping at the store.

Jan was faced with a dilemma – should she bring these concerns up to Bert and if so how, without jeopardizing her career?

It’s not easy to lead-up, which is what Jan had to prepare herself to do if she wanted to confront Bert. Workers are often afraid to broach difficult topics with their superiors for fear of repercussions such as demotions or even a job loss.

While these concerns are valid, it is often best to raise the topics. Holding back information that could harm employees or the business can damage the worker’s or other employee’s psychological health (e.g., depression, hopelessness, anxiety or sleeplessness) and hurt the business’ bottom line (for instance, through the loss of store customers).

Although attempting to “lead-up” doesn’t always guarantee a happy ending, there are 10 constructive ways to bring up difficult topics with employers.

1. Prepare yourself.
It is important to describe the problem in detail. Record what is happening, when it happens and to whom it happens. Keep track of the ramifications of the leader’s behaviour on things like staff morale, customer loyalty and the like. Getting your facts straight, and understanding the staff and business consequences of the leader’s behaviour is a first step in gaining the confidence to broach difficult topics.

2. Avoid getting personal.
Once you’ve outlined the problem in sufficient detail, it is important to find a way to touch on the contentious issue without getting personal. In Jan’s case, she decided to look at the problem from the point of view of the customers, suppliers and staff. If customers overheard Bert’s remarks, how would that affect sales? If staff were cringing when Bert told another racist joke, how would that affect morale and the staff’s ability to stay positive and energized in the store? How would some of the suppliers react when they heard Bert making fun of gays in the storeroom?

3. Anticipate the leader’s reactions.
After creating a business case for leading-up, anticipate the leader’s reaction. Feedback often engenders defensiveness, feelings of embarrassment, denial and dismissive reactions. People sometimes feel criticized and angry when asked to look at their behaviour. Anticipating how the leader may react to your observations and coming up with ways to handle them is part of the preparation phase.

Jan knew that Bert was approachable and craved acceptance, so she figured he probably would react in a hurt and angry way. She anticipated that he might try to dismiss her concerns as overly sensitive and say something like “it’s just a joke, can’t anybody take a joke?”

4. Identify common ground with your superior.
Looking at what you and the leader share is important. Keeping an eye on your common business goals-increasing retail sales in a slumping economy, being clear on how to avoid overtime costs, or using staff better underscores what you both have to gain by improving the situation.

If you have received feedback about behaviour that may hurt business results, consider sharing this information too, along with how you successfully sought to rectify the problem.

5. Set up a meeting.
Once you’ve prepared your point of view, set up a meeting. When leading-up, timing can be everything. Try to think of when your boss may be more attentive. Don’t schedule a leading-up meeting when there is a pressing deadline or right before or after holidays, for example. Ensure that there will be minimal interruptions, describe the length of time you’ll need for the meeting and convey that it is important to the business.

6. Outline the issue.
Begin by thanking your boss for his/her time. Describe the situation as you see it, including what you recorded about the problem, its incidence and the ramifications as you see them. Remember to include the business case as the reason for your coming forward and your desire to find a solution. Listen to the leader’s response and try to understand how he/she may feel. If the reaction is a defensive one, for example, acknowledge how hearing this kind of feedback from staff can be upsetting, but you are glad the leader is listening.

7. Clarify misunderstandings.
Jan was told to “lighten up” by Bert. She mentioned to Bert that he might be misunderstanding what she was reporting. She did not want him to leave their meeting thinking the workplace was too serious. She wanted him to understand that the bottom line could be affected if people’s sensitivities weren’t taken seriously enough. She told him that she observed that certain kinds of humour could be insulting to people and drive them away.

8. Offer a solution.
During the preparation phase, you generated possible solutions, sometimes they can be introduced at this point or you may get creative depending on how the meeting is going. Jan decided that the diversity training option wasn’t going to work and she came up with something new on the spot.

Jan wondered if Bert would be willing to refrain from making comments or “jokes” about gays, women and other races for a month. She’d report back in one month as to whether the number of complaints about this behaviour decreased.

9. Foster accountability.
Ask for a follow-up meeting and offer to set a convenient time to meet again. Thank the leader for his/her time and willingness to listen. Ask if there is anything you can do to support the leader with the solution and suggest ways if none readily come to the leader’s mind.

10. What if it doesn’t work?
It is important to take a step back if you have been unsuccessful in your attempt to lead-up. Identify areas in which you were effective -you were well prepared, you presented sensitively and clearly or you listened well to the leader’s reaction. If there is any more you can do, consider how you might continue the conversation.

However, be prepared to take the matter to a higher-up or include a third party if the issue is not resolved eventually. You may have to make decisions about your own future if you are dissatisfied with the outcome or you may decide to try again at a later date.

It’s a fact: leading-up can be nerve-wracking. But it can be ultimately rewarding, personally and professionally. You must simply believe you have an important contribution to make to the workplace and you’re willing to try to make a difference through collaboration. As Ghandi said, “We must be the change we seek in the world”, making hard conversations with our leaders all the more important.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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