Whether you believe in chain of command, open door at every level or somewhere in between, what creates a culture of avoidance is when people disagree on the rules of resolving conflict. In short, everyone in the organization must agree on how to manage conflict and what steps to take when it arises.
Recently, I saw a highly respected businessman and thought leader share his wisdom on social media: “Have the people who report to the people who report to you feel free to escalate their problems to you.”
This businessman said it’s OK to skip the chain of command. For example, if you’re a manager who is unhappy with your director, you can go around your director to the vice president to escalate your concerns.
Do you agree or disagree? It probably depends on your position and perspective. Most employees love the idea. Most managers would say “absolutely not” if they think about an employee going above them but might agree if their perspective is about access up the chain of command. Sometimes, the bottleneck is a layer above; without access up the chain of command, no one knows the core issue. Executives split between the mindset of “I always have an open door” and “I shouldn’t have to babysit.
As is usual on social media, there were the usual “likes” and acknowledgments from the supporters of how brilliant and spot-on the advice was. The contrarians disagreed utterly. Here’s a sampling of comments on social media.
Supporter: “This is a great and useful form of upward accountability. Communication should flow freely across all team levels. This means alignment from the board to the factory employees. Firms fail because there is a disconnect between the strategic directions and the operational phase of the business. This is where true leadership and excellence are needed to perform.”
Contrarian: “This undermines the authority you’ve given to the people who report to you when their reports can go above them when they don’t get what they want. This should really only happen within a particular set of circumstances like health, safety and well-being.”
A practical example
Suppose an employee is unhappy about a situation but feels their boss won’t help them resolve it. The employee overrides their manager, taking their concerns to the executive.
The trap: The executive listens to the employee and resolves the problem for the employee, overriding the manager’s authority. The manager is blindsided and loses confidence.
The result: The employees learn to override their boss and jump ahead, resulting in a culture of avoidance and rescuing versus honest communication. Trust is lost between manager and executive, and mismanaged conflict leads to retaliation.
What to do instead: If you are an executive and an employee comes to you about resolving a problem with their manager, listen first. Then, ask two strategic questions: “What have you tried so far, and have you talked with your boss about it?” Chances are, they have not addressed it with their boss.
If the employee hasn’t brought the situation to their manager, coach them on how to address the conversation, then set a follow-up date to hear about the result for accountability. A good rule is no blindsides. Don’t undermine your managers. Instead, meet with the employee and the manager to hear both sides if necessary.
Employees are afraid to go to their boss with their concerns. As a result, they take their concerns above their boss, hoping to get a resolution. Realize there are many reasons, including power dynamics, personalities and previous relationships.
Create a transparent system for conflict resolution so that employees know the path to resolution. Equip employees with skills to go to the person with whom they have a problem. If they can’t resolve the problem, the next skill is to talk with their manager before elevating the conversation up the chain of command. Offering a yearly assessment where employees can anonymously give feedback about their managers can help managers get insights into how they are perceived.
As a senior leader, be careful not to undermine the manager who reports to you. Offer the open door, but be aware of the potential for game-playing. If you make it too easy for an employee to avoid conversations with their manager, you create a situation of rescuing, where there’s no need for the manager in the first place. You create a culture of avoidance instead of a culture of accountability.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker and author of “From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading,” as well as a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at MarleneChism.com
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.