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Don’t let me be misunderstood

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

“Senior management have decided…..” is an all too common way for line managers to introduce a controversial or unpopular team briefing. Of course what they are really saying is ,”you’re  probably not going to like this but don’t blame me I’m only the messenger”. This is not how senior management would want their latest initiative to be introduced to employees. Whether senior management failed to adequately explain the rational for their decision or line managers chose not to bother sharing the thinking behind the plan the result  is often confirmation that senior management have got it wrong again.

So how do organisations ensure that employees have confidence in the leadership even when times are difficult, results are poor and financial pressures are restricting the room for manoeuvre? A effective communication strategy would certainly help but in this piece I am focusing on the role of line managers since research shows employees often report confidence and trust in their immediate manager whilst being disparaging about senior management. At this point it is relevant to report that research has also shown that employees have a very limited understanding of what senior managers do other than spend their time in meetings. Perhaps this is not surprising given how little contact the average employee has with senior management.

So the average employee doesn’t have much insight into the role of management so what. On the terraces when their team is on a losing run of matches, tumbling down the league table and heading for another defeat it is not long before home supporters express their displeasure. When the star striker is substituted the cry goes up, “ you don’t know what your doing”. But this is the same manager who got them promoted last season! What these two scenarios have in common is the lack of understanding and information about what is informing decisions.

An experienced and successful football manager in his biography explained his relationship with the board by way of an example form their transfer dealings. He asked for an experienced centre half to strengthen the defence and the board went out and bought a young “exciting” winger. Unable to criticise the board publicly, unable to claim he was starved of transfer funds and expected to play the new signing despite the disruption to the team he just had to get on with it.

The average supporter relies on the journalists and pundits to give them insight as to what might be happening behind the scenes to explain what’s happening on the field. In an organisation employees can get their information from the grape vine, the trade Union or their line manager. I am recognising the importance of the line manager in explaining context and at the same time acknowledging that few organisations adequately equip managers for this role.

Such openness relies on a culture where all managers explain the thinking behind decisions, are open to questioning about the assumptions behind decisions and there  is a willingness to explain the context/restrictions within which the business operates.

It benefits the whole organisation if employees at every level have confidence in the leadership. Confidence can either be enhanced or undermined by whether line managers own the decisions of senior management or habitually seek to distance them selves from unpopular decisions. Confidence in the leadership is further increased if employees understand the thinking behind decisions, even if they don’t agree with them.

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