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Your Baby is Ugly

babySitting in front of my old boss, days before my transfer to my new boss, I am engaged in what is commonly referred to in the military as the “out brief.”  It is a mildly informal meeting with leaders in the the chain-of-command where you are supposed to tell them – I don’t know – what ever you haven’t yet.  It’s where they ask questions like, “How was your tour of duty here?” and, “What advice do you have for me?”  It is my ninth one of these (I think) and the same thought keeps running through my mind.  Why do they wait until we are leaving to ask these questions? Walking out of the man’s office after telling him almost nothing of any value the answer came to me:  It’s because people don’t want to tell the boss, “Your baby is ugly.”  …and they know it. It’s about truth to power.  My boss knows that people don’t say what they mean when they mean it and the “out-brief” is an easy way to give them a chance to be honest without actually having to take responsibility for it.  We get to tell them what we don’t like about their command (and by default – them) after our last evaluations have been signed. Ring and run, anyone?

But the reason I didn’t tell my boss anything of real value isn’t because I was afraid – it’s because he has been an excellent boss. He had heard it all before because he has always made me believe I could tell him anything.  Add that to my general willingness to disagree and a final meeting to make sure becomes pointless.  Personally I have an advantage where disagreement is concerned. Over the years I’ve developed a sort of polite tactlessness that helps me get away with more truth-to-power than most; or at least it feels like I get away with it.  Smile when you say it and you can say almost anything.  Compliment them and smile and you will have Jedi-like influence in your world. “These aren’t the plans your looking for.” – But as leaders, we should be more interested in creating cultures of honesty within our teams. It is not about mind tricks, it is about making your team believe that they can say anything at anytime, without getting bit.  Here are some ideas on how to make that happen:

1. Don’t ever let them get bit – just for disagreeing:  The fear of poor evaluations for voicing opinions is often justified.  Be on the look out for ill reports on team members that otherwise seem like great people.  Bad evaluations, like good ones, should be easy to justify.  When managers struggle to explain their low opinion of someone on the team, you can bet it has something to do with their willingness to disagree and voice concern.

2. Call your own baby ugly – at least when it actually is:  Tom Peters said that the three most powerful words in the leaders language are “I don’t know.”  For my money, “I was wrong” and “I screwed up” are tied for a very close second.  Openly admitting your blunders (every time) is the best way to make it clear that your fallibility is open for discussion.

3. Ask for it – from the bottom up if at all possible:  Reversing one of my favorite questions mentioned from “Being a Good Follower“, you can get a long way down the road to honest answers by sincerely asking for them.  “What is screwed up around here that you’re don’t want to tell me because you think I wont like it?” is an awesome question. Put to the most junior members in the organization first for two reasons: the first is that they are the ones most likely to believe something is screwed up,  and secondly it is at their level that things-going-wrong have the most impact.

4. Take the gatekeeper’s keys – no matter how offended they get: In Steve Sample’s book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership he describes his philosophy of “open communication with structured decision making.”  Sample, President of the University of Southern California since 1991, believes that the chain-of-command does NOT imply that there is a chain-of-communication.  Simply put, anyone can talk to anyone else in the organization about anything; so long as decisions are made through the structure of the organization.  The most junior associate in the firm should be able to talk to the most senior partner about what they think (about anything) without any filters. (hint: mid-level managers who have a real problem with this ARE the problem.)  No, that doesn’t mean a free-for-all open door policy on every minor complaint, but it does mean that team should know that nothing is off limits when it comes to discussion.  It is, after all, just discussion – everyone who needs to be involved in action will get their turn when (and if) the time for action comes.

I still haven’t reported in to my new job (the rest has been important) and when I get there, there is certain to be an “in-brief”.  I like those:  the in-brief is where I find out what will be expected and how I can serve the team best over the next four years.  With any luck, my “out-brief”  will be as easy as this last one – where there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said already.

About the author

Mario Vittone Mario Vittone has eighteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, Lifelines, and Reader's Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, mission focus, and generational diversity.

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Posted in General Leadership, Opinion.