Listen up leaders: Narrow information streams are deadly

04 Jun

I have had the good fortune to work at several different organizations in several different roles. True, all were linked to education in some way, I was either a professor, teacher, instructor, etc., or an administrator. I also had a major in organizational behavior in my doctoral program, but I learned most of what I know about how things work from observation and involvement. One thing I have learned and do sincerely hope other people who consider themselves leaders learn is that in order to be effective and lead well you have to listen to people, particularly people farther down the food chain so to speak. Institutions are made up of people. People are complex and interesting creatures with varied outlooks, perspectives , biases and values. Only listening to certain people gives you a cramped, inaccurate view of what is going on.

One institution I worked at had a scandal. One of the higher executives than myself came to me asking for advice on how to handle it. My first reaction was to tell her that it was above my pay grade to give her advice. When I say she was higher than me she probably makes three times as much money as I do and supervises, at least theoretically, about 500 people.  I have a dotted line to one person and a graduate assistant, period. But, there was a racial component to the scandal and since I have been the black whisperer at every job I have had as an adult it was logical that she should ask me I guess.

I gave her a very sage piece of advice if I do say so myself. I told her she had to listen to more people. No matter what the scandal, no matter what the impropriety, no matter if it becomes public or stays on the down-low, all kinds of people know about it. And they could and would tell you, their leader, about it if you would only do two things; create an ethical atmosphere where everyone considers it their duty to report an impropriety and ask them questions periodically.

At many institutions telling on someone who is doing something wrong is frequently frowned upon more than the person committing the wrong. Another scandal, at yet another of my institutions ( they were not all fraught with scandal, but stuff happens everywhere!) a staff member was using racial slurs against people she supervised. When this was shared with his boss he chose to do nothing about it, his rationale was never discussed with me or anyone else that I know of. Someone took it upon him or herself to send a letter, anonymously, to his boss and outline the offense.

His boss evidently reamed him a new one and the person was eventually fired. The middle man, the boss who did not take action, complained to me, not that his employee was using racial slurs, but that someone was writing letters sharing that information with other people. In other words his concern was not the verbal abuse of subordinates by someone he was supposed to supervise, but the fact that someone was airing the dirty laundry. I asked him if he did not realize that if he had fired the culprit to begin with there would have been no need for anyone to rat him out, and that if he had been fired when he should have been ( according to employment policy at the institution, not according to me) he could have stuck out his chest and declared his own wise and just handling of the issue. No, he wanted it kept quiet, but it was not. It was widely known in the organization, several people told me about it and expressed their dismay that nothing was being done. If he had listened to more people he would have realized he could not contain the issue and would have acted decisively instead of being pushed into a corner when his own boss found out.

What many leaders do not seem to realize is that virtually nothing is secret in any organization short of the CIA. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. What some people call gossip some people, like me, call networking. Networking includes sharing information, sometimes insider information, and it is a great boon to those who want to know what is actually happening, not what you hope is happening or trust is happening.

Now, effective networking has several requirements. You have different levels of trust with different people. Your A list people can and will tell you anything and vice versa. You are very lucky if you can establish an A list of four or five people. They will keep your secrets to the grave and you will do the same for them.  I have about seven. The B list people are those you tell a little, but will tell you a lot. These are the gems and are usually made up of secretaries and people who work in environments where they are basically invisible.

Simply chatting with people is very illuminating. Folks tell you all kinds of things. I know where so many bodies are buried at various institutions that I could probably get a license as a funeral director. When things are weighing on a person’s mind simply having coffee with them and being interested will get you all kinds of info.

Our leaders tend to have constricted information streams. They only talk to certain people, only listen to certain people. This is a dreadful and foolish mistake.You know the old saying by Bossidy about Boston society “And this is good old Boston, The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots And the Cabots talk only to God. ” On many college campuses the chairs talk only to the deans, the deans talk only to the president and the president talks only to God ( or the Board of Trustees which may believe they are gods).

But, the chairs and the deans and the president and vice-presidents do not talk to people who actually know what is going on, who are actually aware of the petty rivalries, intrigues and misconducts that might blow up some day into a public scandal, at which time the leadership will wring their hands, shake their heads, find a few scapegoats to throw under the bus and swear 1) I had no idea 2) we have put policies in place so it will never happen again 3) it is not my fault.

Yes it is your fault. You get paid big bucks to run whatever institution you are in charge of. That means knowing what is going on, picking people who are ethical and most of all not acting like Evilene in the Wiz by constantly making it known you do not want nobody to bring you no bad news. Telling on people should not be frowned upon if there is something to tell. It should be encouraged and rewarded. True, you will have to talk to people more and talk to more people, heaven forfend. I mean I can only imagine how trying it would be to have to exchange pleasantries with someone who is not in your same socio-economic class, but some of those peasants may be able to save your bacon, if you act like you respect and value them. Conversely they might start writing anonymous letters if you do not.

So open up those information streams. The people you have charged with making everything all right are probably going to report, when asked, that everything is all right. To do any less would be to admit they were  not able to handle what you are trusting them and paying them to handle.

Get out of your office and walk around and talk to people. Copy Ed Koch and do not be afraid to ask anyone ” How and I doing?” Some of them might be honest enough to  tell you and save you having to learn about it from a newspaper reporter.


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