Management guidelines for promoting accountability
By Michael Josephson
Complete, reliable information is essential to good decisions. It is prudent as well as respectful and responsible to encourage employees and associates to surface facts, discuss pressures, and challenge practices that might be inefficient, illegal, or unethical. Here are some guidelines to create a culture that supports open communication:
- Communication is a good thing. Get yourself in a mindset where you can truly appreciate the benefit of open disclosure even though it is time-consuming and you know you will often hear things you disagree with. Hearing people out not only substantially increases the likelihood that you will acquire important information that will help you make better decisions, it is very important to the trust and morale of the employee and all the people he or she will talk to that you provide an outlet for the expression of strongly held opinions or concerns. If you begin to think that such discussions are distracting you from your real work, remind yourself that this is your real work – the management of people and conflicts.
- Take it seriously; handle it carefully. Although the primary goal of encouraging full communication is a positive one – to get important information and reinforce the idea throughout the organization that you want people to be open, candid, and accountable – it is also important to reduce the likelihood of potential negative consequences. If the employee is or becomes passionately disgruntled, the organization may be injured by morale-damaging gossip, future confrontations, divisive alliances, resignations, leaking to the press, whistleblowing to government agencies, and civil litigation. Generally, if you are truly respectful, honest, and accountable and try to do the right thing, these consequences can be avoided.
- Encourage communication by words and deeds. Many managers delude themselves about their approachability. You may think you have an effective “open-door” policy and that everyone feels comfortable delivering bad news or challenging management decisions, but that’s almost certainly not true. In most organizations there is a widespread belief that managers “kill the messenger” of bad news. There may be one or two employees who eagerly tell you what’s on their mind but they aren’t typical, they don’t know everything, and their views aren’t necessarily representative. If you really want people to tell you what’s on their mind, you must not only say that frequently but you must prove it by the way you react when you are told something you don’t like.
- Establish ground rules. It might help to have a written statement concerning effective and desirable ways to register complaints or challenge policies but, in some fashion, make it clear from the beginning that you want to hear the information and that you will seriously consider it. Nevertheless, you may or may not agree with the employee’s assessment of either what happened or what should be done. Indicate in a respectful way that sometimes people who come in with concerns and complaints do not have access to all the facts and ask the employee to have an open mind.
- Respect how hard this may be for the employee. For most people, delivering negative information to their boss is a very difficult thing to do. Challenging a policy or practice is even harder. It’s likely the employee thought about the matter for a long time, discussed it with others, and even rehearsed what to say. Thus, both the issue and event (the discussion itself) are important to that person. Regardless of what you think about the merits of the matter, treat the problem and the person with utmost respect and express your appreciation for the decision to trust you and convey his or her thoughts openly. Give the employee your full attention. Be sure not to say or do anything (e.g., read mail or allow continuous interruptions) that can be construed as belittling either the person or the problem.
- Listen with an open mind. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the information because the messenger doesn’t have all the facts, isn’t as smart as you, or is excessively self-righteous. Be careful not to interrupt just because you’ve heard it before or you think the comments are irrelevant or insubstantial. Remember, even paranoids have real enemies, and difficult-to-deal-with people can be right. Listen with respectful patience within reasonable time parameters.
- Avoid negative tone or body language. Encourage full disclosure and discussion not only by words but actions. Your tone of voice and body language may be enough to invite or repress communication. If you react to bad news with frustration or anger, make it clear that your emotion is addressed at the situation, not the messenger.
- Don’t allow tirades, yelling, or verbal abuse. Make clear at the first sign of inappropriate conduct that the discussion must be mutually respectful. Simple ground rules: no excessively raised voices, no name-calling, keep to the point, and be responsible when talking about the motives or character of others.
- Be honest and avoid ambiguity. Being respectful doesn’t mean being dishonest. Don’t say or imply you agree if you don’t. Most people construe silence as agreement. You need not disagree openly with every point or state your reaction on every assertion, but try to be clear enough about how you are receiving the information to avoid ambiguities that can be the basis for later accusations of insincerity or bad faith.
- Don’t count on confidentiality or discretion. In appropriate circumstances, you may ask the employee to be discreet about telling others, but be careful not to ask them to keep the matter a secret. Regardless of what you say to the employee or he or she says to you about confidentiality, consider it likely that your conversation will be discussed either immediately or if the employee becomes dissatisfied with the resolution. By the same token, be careful not to promise confidentiality if proper handling of the situation may require disclosure of the information or the source.
- Provide closure. If you can, tell the employee at the end of the meeting what you will do. If you can’t, commit to a further communication that will bring closure to the matter (at least as far as you are concerned; the employee may choose to take the issue further). Be sure to keep that commitment. If you are not the last and final word on the matter, don’t force the employee to figure out the chain of command; tell him or her where to bring the issue if not satisfied with your resolution.
- Be careful about what you say and do after the meeting. You may conclude the employee is a kook, has a malicious motive, or is otherwise not credible. That’s relevant to your own analysis, but be very careful of indicating these feelings to others. Bad information about a person has a way of getting back to them, and it is always discoverable in litigation. To prevent cynicism and avoid litigation, don’t do anything that could be reasonably construed as disapproval or retaliatory. Your behavior to the employee will be studied and interpreted minutely by the employee and all coworkers who know of the discussion.