At a large group session recently, we were talking about the importance of speaking up with our managers about problems, especially ones that the manager may be creating. It’s something that many people—myself included—don’t always feel comfortable doing. We don’t want to bring our manager bad news, especially if that bad news is that THEY are creating an issue. One of the hardest things to manage in the workplace is speaking truth to power.
It’s a hard thing to say to your manager, “Mike, you’re creating a problem for the team when you do that.” It can also be one of the simplest ways to get their help on something that we feel is big, and they may see as small. The difficulty with approaching a manager isn’t always that the actual issue is a big deal…it tends to feel bigger because of who we are taking it to.
There are three simple steps to help make these conversations easier for you and your manager:
- Create Safety: Let your manager know that they often help the team and that sometimes, their intentions don’t work out like they think. Ask your manager if they want you to let them know when they are creating an issue. It can literally be as simple as, “Mike, do you want me to let you know when you are unintentionally creating a problem for the team?” Hopefully, they say, “yes,” and you go to step 2…if not, reach out to one of us for a chat.
- Get clear on how: If they answer with a yes, follow that up with “Great! Thanks! How do you want me to tell you so that the conversation goes well?” Now you are getting into a critical issue of how to productively have that discussion so that he doesn’t get defensive, or you don’t accidentally trigger him by beating around the bush or bringing the issue at a bad time. You want to really understand them here, so take time and ask questions about anything that isn’t crystal clear to you.
- Have a practice run: Use a small thing to get started, probably what you’re thinking of right now. You may feel like you’re having a heart attack the first time you do this. It’s going to be OK. Every time afterward will get easier.
One way to reframe this process in your mind is to ask yourself, “What do I want my direct reports to do with me?”
When I asked the team how many of them wanted their team members to let THEM know when THEY were creating a problem, almost every single hand went up. When I followed that up with “How many of you tell your manager when they are creating a problem?” very few raised their hand. This paradox exists because people aren’t comfortable with HOW to have this conversation with their manager.
Your manager will appreciate your honesty and your willingness to speak up, especially if you’re uncomfortable. Keep remembering that you are doing this to help them, help you, and help the business.
Most team members who do this excitedly share the story at the next team session and talk about how well it went. They didn’t get fired, and the manager didn’t blow their top. They actually say that they feel a better connection with their manager because of this conversation.