Talk with your leader!

Øyvind Kvalnes

It is wise to talk with your superior, even if it may seem futile and risky, urges Øyvind Kvalnes.

As a travelling philosopher I frequently meet people with a need to talk about their leaders. Many are frustrated with their leaders’ behaviour. They interfere too much or not enough with the daily tasks at work. They rarely provide feedback. On the rare occasions when they do, it is vague and imprecise. Without warning, they make disparaging comments about employees in meetings.

All in all, the leader seems to have a great potential for improvement.

Whenever I ask people if they have raised these concerns with their superior, the answer is usually “no”. For various reasons, people are reluctant to confront their leader with ideas about changing behaviour for the better. I find this intriguing and want to know more about why people choose to be silent when facing leaders who frustrate them.

Three types of leaders

I get to hear narratives about three types of leaders when employees explain their hesitation to discuss difficult subjects with them:

  • The porcelain leader: This is a fragile person who already has a lot on his or her plate. If you add more burden now, he or she will likely shatter. The reason why many hesitate to criticise the leader, is simply because they sense that it will be too much. Their superior will be crushed into pieces, both as a leader, but possibly also as a person.
  • The teflon leader: This leader will seemingly listen to you, but without ever truly taking in the message. Suggestions and comments bounce off. It is pointless using your energy on trying to make this person change. He or she would be wise to check up on what goes on in the department, but will not heed your advice to do so. The boss might nod and smile when you present your suggestions. The absent look tells you that nothing will change this time either.
  • The explosive leader: This is the type that becomes furious and unpleasant when faced with criticism. Those who dare raise their voices and object, are targeted with sarcastic and snide remarks. This destroys people’s motivation to provide useful feedback to their superior. 

Leaders s need generative resistance

Several leaders certainly belong in these three categories. However, this way of thinking may also lead to bad excuses for not taking initiatives and speaking up. In all workplaces there is a need for what my colleague Arne Carlsen calls generative resistance, or using doubt, friction, opposition, and criticism actively as a tool for successful development.

More robust than you think?

We need to challenge even those who appear to be porcelain leaders. If the person in question really is that fragile, perhaps he or she should not be in charge at all. Your initiative may challenge their own perception of themselves. Conversely, the leader might reveal him- or herself to be more robust than you imagined, and might handle friction and opposition r better than you thought they would.

Repetition might be handy

A presumed teflon leader should frequently receive constructive input, even if it seems to bounce off every time. Repeated suggestions about how things can be improved, might be a catalyst for change, even in people who appear uninterested. Obviously, it can be annoying to experience that a person is not taking your message seriously. Repetition might still be handy.

What the explosive leader needs to hear

One of the first things the explosion leader needs to hear, is that people are reluctant to share important information because they fear the emotional eruption it might lead to. Perhaps this is an incurable grumpy person, someone it is futile trying g to change. However, this person may finally accept the message, and realise that his or her own behaviour reduces the chances for a constructive dialogue with colleagues and employees.

Better to switch jobs than to fall victim to bad leadership

Talk with your leader! That is my message to those who are frustrated with their superiors and reluctant to engage in serious conversation with them. I choose to be sceptical towards the stories about the porcelain leader, the teflon leader and the explosive leader, since they tend to serve as dubious excuses for remaining silent and passive in encounters with a leader, who is actually a fallible being in need of constructive input.

Keeping your mouth shut instead of confronting the leader with your honest opinions, can lead to a normalization of ineffective routines and habits in organisations.

If things really are that hopeless, it is better to change jobs rather than to fall victim to bad leadership.

This article was published as an opinion piece on leadership in Dagens Næringsliv 29 October 2018 (and online the day before).

Text: Philosopher and Associate Professor Øyvind Kvalnes at the Department of Leadership and Organizational Management at BI Norwegian School of Management.

Translated by: Marketing coordinator, Eivind Lindkvist Johansen.

Published 30. November 2018

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