How to Take the High Road as a Leader
An IT organization I once visited had had a prolonged period of low morale. To address the matter, Bart, who had recently been promoted into the CIO position, solicited recommendations for improvement from IT personnel. After he and his senior management team reviewed the recommendations and developed an action plan, Bart scheduled an all-hands meeting to present the plan.
Each person arriving at the meeting was handed a feedback form for jotting down reactions to the plan. Afterward, in the privacy of his office, Bart looked through the feedback forms. Comments varied from positive and hopeful to doubtful and disbelieving. One form, however, was filled with insulting, verbally abusive, in-your-face comments about Bart and his managers. The form wasn’t signed.
Upon reading these comments, Bart blew up. Normally a level-headed person, his first impulse was to send an IT-wide email saying that the person who had submitted the nastily negative feedback was no longer welcome in the company and should pack up and leave.
If Bart had done that, he would have fed the already overactive gossip mill in the office, undermined his action plan, and sent morale plunging even further. He also would likely have led employees who had sent mildly negative feedback to think that the email was directed at them. And he would have damaged the sterling reputation that had accompanied him into the CIO role.
Bart forgot that leaders who invite feedback and then suggest, by word or deed, that only positive feedback is welcome end up ensuring that critical feedback—the kind they really ought to hear—will be withheld. Fortunately, Bart’s senior managers calmed him down before he hit Send.
A much better response for Bart would have been to take the high road. Instead of the message he almost sent, he might have sent one that thanked everyone who responded to the request for feedback. He could have acknowledged that all of it, both positive and negative, was helpful. He might then have mentioned that he’d welcome the opportunity to meet one-on-one with anyone who wanted to discuss their grievances so that he could better understand their concerns. He could have emphasized that their doing so would help him make the organization the kind they would like it to be.
Bart might have closed the email by saying that he wants to make the organization one where people feel comfortable letting him or his managers know their grievances. And he could have stressed that he knows the organization has a long way to go, but that he’s convinced the goal is attainable.
Bart didn’t send this kind of message. It’s a shame, because this type of message alone would have helped improve morale. But at least he didn’t send his first choice of response.