The Messenger Matters

“People are a time suck,” he told me in our first coaching session. “I’m sprinting and everyone else is crawling. They don’t seem to get it. I’m having to push them the whole time. What do I do about them? ”

He is the owner of two small businesses. And he came to me for coaching because “I’m not connecting with my staff in a way that’s working.”

 No kidding.

To his great credit he also came to coaching because “There is no-one to hold me accountable. I haven’t been the greatest leader. I need someone to be a transparent straight shooter with me.”

That I can do,” I promised him.

So: “I wouldn’t want to work for you,” I told him in our second coaching session.

And that, right there is part of the key problem. I could risk being fired as a coach. I have other clients. He is not my sole source of income. I could easily be the messenger because the risk was small to me.

But that is not the situation for most people working with someone like him.

When you have the greater objective power – when you’re the boss, the manager, the business owner, the more senior leader – it becomes infinitely harder and more dangerous for those below you to give you feedback. That’s not because they lack courage. It’s because they value their jobs and the income it provides them. They have ample evidence that their jobs may be at risk if they attempt to give constructive upward feedback – most especially when the more powerful person is abrasive and dictatorial. Because those are the very people who respond most aggressively to perceived threats to their power, status and competence.

Time and time again the advice to people working under toxic, abrasive managers is to “talk to them”.

It doesn’t work.

It’s unreasonable to expect someone with less objective power to hold someone with more objective power accountable. Absolutely part of the problem with abrasive leaders is that not enough people do hold them accountable for the impact of their behaviour. But reality is, when it’s your job and income on the line, it’s completely human not to want to take that risk.

Because the messenger is usually the one who is shot.

If any of the staff of my client had attempted to give feedback to him, they would have been dismissed as entitled whining complainers, who “don’t get what it takes to run a business” (his words). And their future at the company would have been short lived.

I could be the messenger to him. His staff less so: because of the very environment he has created.

The messenger matters.

“We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces…(like abusive power). For some, that belief is valid. (But) they are the minority, the rare birds. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion,” Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, writes in The Lucifer Effect. That’s not because people are weak or sycophantic flatterers: it’s because we consistently underestimate the powerful and primal need to belong and to be accepted by both the group as a whole and the more powerful person in that group. Challenging the leader of a group risks expulsion. Which to our nervous system, still wired for social living in small groups on the savannah, means death.

The idea that the people on the receiving end of abusive and abrasive leadership should be the ones to challenge that leader is cruel and unjust. It puts the burden of accountability on those who have the least power and who have the most to lose. And it’s blame shifting: it’s not leadership that’s the problem, it’s people who won’t stand up to the leader.

One of the more sobering findings from both the empathy and the self-awareness research fields is that there is an inverse relationship between power on the one hand and self-awareness, empathy and emotional intelligence on the other. The more senior the leader, the less empathetic and self-aware they tend to be.

And it’s not because those leaders start out with less skill.

Rather it is the social dynamics of power that drive this. It is simply hard to speak truth to power, and so the more power one has, the less truth you are told by others. Leaders tend to be surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars” (Tasha Eurich, HBR Ideacast #644, “How to become more self-aware”). Precisely when it becomes more important to understand your impact on others, you become less aware of it. Which compromises your ability to lead and manage effectively.

This happened to me just last week. I needed to give some feedback to a more powerful man – and a masterful coach himself. Something he had said had really impacted me as a woman. It wasn’t easy for me to give the feedback that I did. But I knew that I had to if I wanted to be able to look myself in the eye and also to continue to collaborate with him. I coach around this stuff all the time – and I still needed to get some coaching support for myself before I went into that conversation.

It didn’t go badly. But it didn’t go as I had hoped either – because even he couldn’t resist subtly turning the tables and putting it back on me. Now, what he had to say back to me might have some truth to it. But that’s not the point. By not doing that in a separate conversation with me, but rather right after I had shared the impact on me of what he had said, the impact was to discount what I was saying, and by extension discount my experience.

The impact was to shoot the messenger – no matter how subtly.

Even if my experience was totally subjective, and not how any other woman or someone with less power would have experienced it, there is only one thing to say in that moment when someone has taken the courage to speak truth to power: “Thank you.” Bonus points if you can add “I appreciate the courage it took to raise this with me. I’ll think about what you’ve said. Can we have a follow-up conversation about this tomorrow after I’ve had some time to process this?”

Will I be likely to give him feedback again? Right now, I can honestly say I’m not sure. I hope I will – but there’s that little bit less safety and trust now, and so I will be more guarded.

Do I take feedback well, myself?

In a word: no.

Negative feedback, no matter how constructive or skillfully delivered, still lands like a gut punch to the stomach for me. I immediately want to get defensive. And my go-to defense strategies are to go on the offense, play the victim card, and/or bleat “that wasn’t my intention.” In that moment I have to lean hard into my training and practice, and just say “Thank you”. And try, if I can, to get curious – to really understand them as a human being. And if I can’t, to stick with the thank you and exit as graciously as I can. And then do my work to process it. I am very much still a work in progress on this. But I keep on practicing.

Because the messenger matters.

If I shoot them down, I don’t get to know more about them as a person (most especially if I thoroughly disagree with what they are saying), or more about me and my impact.

Yes, some feedback is more about the giver than the receiver. But relying solely on your own judgement to determine that is a recipe for self-deception. If you are a leader, it is 100 percent your responsibility to create your team of loving critics who tell you the unvarnished truth, and with whom you can check hard feedback. You need to create a psychologically safe environment for people to give you that feedback – not from those above you, but from those below you. And then explicitly seek it out. You cannot wait for people to come to you: if you do, you will never get enough of the feedback you need to become more self-aware and more effective.

And no matter how much you disagree with the feedback, under no circumstances do you shoot the messenger. Not ever. Because word will spread and you’ll enter the feedback desert. And your next ask for feedback will be met with deafening silence at worst, or useless platitudes at best.

The messenger matters.

Creating a feedback team of loving critics is something I will be working towards with my client. As will be supporting him in shifting his company culture to one in which his staff are explicitly encouraged – and rewarded – for being straight with him. It will take time, he has work to do, but it is one hundred percent possible.

What are you doing to value the messenger, to encourage and reward those who speak up to you when you have the greater power?

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