As Others See Us.

May 23, 2008 at 11:31 am 2 comments

If you don’t recognize the tail end of this quote from Robert Burn’s ‘To a Louse’ then here it is in its entirety, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!”. Why am I waxing poetic this month? Mainly because a sad incident a few months ago that has stuck in my mind.

I’d just given a presentation on Change Management and was afterwards approached by a contingent of a half dozen dejected looking employees from a company which shall remain nameless in this article. They wanted to have a private and confidential discussion about some changes going on in their organization. They wanted advice on two things; how to cope with the changes and how to communicate to management that they were on a path to destruction because of how the changes were being implemented.

None of this is unusual, I get asked these types of questions all the time. What was different this time was some of the language used in their responses to my standard information gathering questions. I could easily comment on their queries on coping with Change, as the techniques are the same regardless of the Change, company, person etc. etc. Change is Change is Change.

To offer advice on how to communicate with management isn’t as easy. To offer advice without knowing the culture first hand, is presumptuous. To dispense communication strategies without knowing the details of the existing Status Quo and the Change being implemented isn’t only naïve, it’s dangerous.

So when I asked if could come into the organization to gather this information their responses were as follows;

No – management isn’t listening to anyone who takes issue with their policies
No – the powers that be, won’t listen to anything that might change their actions.
No – that’s pointless – they only hire those who agree with them.
No – they shoot the messenger on a regular basis – I can’t risk my job.
No – upper management is convinced there isn’t a problem.
No – the dark overlords know best. (Their words… not mine)
No – management has no interest in people issues.

Now, we all know that ‘gaps of disagreement’ between staff and management are not unusual, but their choice of words, combined with the deer in the headlights look of desperation on their faces in front of me – suggested that this was more than the normal amount of disagreement. Other comments described management as a ‘not very nice people’, ‘bullies’ and ‘interested only in themselves and not the organization’.

Here’s the question, and the purpose of this particular article, are we certain we know how we’re perceived by others in our organization? Do employees really know how they’re perceived by management? And even more importantly (in my opinion) does management really know how they’re perceived by the rank and file?

Regardless of the accuracy of the above statements by this post-presentation contingent of employees, is management aware that they are not seen as leaders? Do they care? Should they?

That that question is even asked is a symptom of something wrong. We all know people who literally do not care what employees think of them. Why is that wrong? If we can’t answer that question, then we’ve lost touch with what it even means to be a leader. I can’t imagine how an organization can excel if employees don’t respect, and even admire, their managers.

I’m not a great fan of most Human Resource management instruments, many of them seem more like Astrology and tea leaf readings than anything I’d use to manage either myself or others. That personal quirk aside, there is one I’m willing to treat with great respect, primarily because it’s nothing more than a process by which the feedback loops between ourselves and everyone around us – which should take place on a regular basis – do take place, at least from time to time. I’m referring to the class of HR tools known collectively as “360-degree feedback”.

The 360 concept is simple. Your peers, subordinates, managers and even your clients provide feedback on a variety of your attributes – anonymously of course. Robbie Burns would love it.

All of us, regardless of where we sit on the organization hierarchy, need to know how others see us. Regardless of whether the impressions of management, such as the ones listed above, are accurate or not – it’s information we can use to our advantage.

There’s a risk of course. Ask for feedback and, guess what? You’re going to get feedback… can you handle the truth? What about the lies?

Not all the truth will be ‘pleasant’. Under the guarantee of anonymity (need I stress how important that is?) people are willing to provide both the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, under that same guarantee, there are those who will seize the opportunity to inflict some petty revenge. Luckily, these are usually exceptions and stand out as anomalies amongst the rest of the feedback. Good 360 instruments are designed to identify these aberrations.

Regardless of the feedback, it’s all information we can put to good use, unless we don’t care.
Frankly, even after a lifetime of experience with organizations of every stripe, I don’t know of more than a handful of managers who would pride themselves on a reputation as bleak as the one painted by the contingent that prompted this discussion. And even in those rare situations, would a competent board of directors support a management style worthy of the ‘Dark Lord’ comparison? Assuming they wanted the organization to prosper?

Putting the extreme end of the perception spectrum aside, are we seen as; fair; reasonable; competent; hard working; pleasant to work work with? If that’s what we believe, how do we know it to be true? Most people have trouble telling us we have something stuck in our teeth, never-mind anything really important such as our pet project is doomed to failure. Especially if we’re sending out unconscious signals that negative feedback is unwelcome.

The advantage of the 360-degree feedback process is the enforced anonymity of the feedback. We all enjoy both giving and receiving positive feedback – it’s the negative stuff that presents us with the largest difficult and the largest benefit. The amount about benefit depends entirely on our willingness to give more than a little credence to the negative comments we’re sure to receive.

So? Was Robbie Burns on the mark? Do we really want the power to see how others see us? Or is ignorance truly bliss? (ps. You do have something stuck in your teeth.)

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Entry filed under: Change, Change Management, Communicating, Communications, Leaders, Leadership, Management, Managing, People Sklls, Soft Skills.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Viktor  |  May 31, 2008 at 5:31 am

    some things we are better ooff not knowing, some we better know .. its a question of choice.

    Reply
  • 2. kcowan  |  June 16, 2008 at 11:24 am

    I would say that the primary problem that you unearthed was that the management was not communicating what they were doing and why. When change is being implemented, communications are crucial. The affected employees may still not agree with the changes, but they will understand.

    Plus any management that implements changes without consulting the people impacted is just asking for trouble.

    360s are used for a different purpose IMHO. They are better at gaining an insight into style rather than substance.

    Reply

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