How many times have you been in a situation, where you knew things were going to go badly, yet no one had the guts to tell the person in charge?
It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone can hear it bellowing, except the boss.
I was recently working with an organization where the employees knew that the big project deadlines where totally unrealistic. There was no way it was going to be completed on time. Yet senior leadership was still telling the executive board that the project was on track.
It’s easy to place the blame on the leaders for setting unrealistic goals, but I believe the responsibility goes both ways. Employees, who often have a more accurate lens on things, have a responsibility to alert leaders about potential problems.
Here are three common reasons people don’t broach touchy subjects and how to well up your courage:
1. Fear of an uncomfortable conversation
Years ago, my husband and I bought a business that wound up failing. Badly. We lost tons of money, spent two years of misery, and almost sunk our entire family.
After we threw in the towel, a friend said, “You know, I had some concerns when you were buying this.” I asked her why she didn’t say anything. Her response? “You two seemed so enthusiastic, I didn’t want to burst your bubble.”
I was devastated, and to be honest, the friendship was never the same. I felt a real friend would have welled up the guts to share her concerns before I made the mistake. Sure, I might have ignored her, or even gotten defensive, but one uncomfortable conversation might have been enough to make me ask questions that could have saved my family a pile of pain.
Learning – Don’t mistake enthusiasm for attachment; people are more flexible than you think. Give them a chance to reconsider.
2. Not knowing how to start
People imagine leading with the bad news, but it’s better (and easier) to start with questions. For example, my friend could have asked, “Have you thought about asking the current owners about x, y, and z?” That alone would have helped me recognize that we didn’t have all the information.
Someone on the project team could have asked their boss “How do you think we’re tracking on the goals?” If the boss thought it was great, they could have asked, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be confrontational; it can be collaborative.
Take away – Instead of starting with the bad news, start with questions about the topic.
3. Assuming the other person will reject the information
In the case of the unrealistic project goals, when I asked the employees why they hadn’t told the leaders, they said, “The bosses don’t want to hear it.”
I pressed further, “Have you gotten bad reaction in the past when you’ve shared negative information?” “Uh, well, not really. We’ve never tried.”
Without ever attempting to broach the subject, the employees had convinced themselves that their leaders would prefer to be kept in the dark.
Litmus – Ask yourself, if I were the leader, would I rather know now or later?
Nothing is worse than failing, and having someone tell you, after the fact, “I knew this was doomed.”
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but if you care about the people and the project, suck up your courage and say something.