Anyone who has been accountable for others, as a leader, has experienced the queasy feeling when a direct report “goes around” them and has direct communication with their boss. You know what I’m talking about, don’t pretend you don’t. It’s normal. It’s built in to our species. For millenia our ancestors survived intra- and inter-group competition by making alliances, controlling resources and commanding loyalty from those who looked to them for protection, economic reciprocity and preferred treatment.
So when “our” employee opens a direct dialogue with our own boss, we feel at risk. What if the boss decides we are no longer as good as they thought? Maybe our direct report is smarter. Or is willing to work harder. Or is cheaper.
What if our boss finds out we don’t know as much as we should? What if we seem unnecessary? Bad things on the horizon.
We ask our employee to come to our office (demonstrating superior authority). We sit them down and say, “You realize that by sharing what you did with Frank, you’ve preempted the planned briefing several of us have been working on to get him up to speed. I need you to follow the chain of command. It’s my responsibility to keep him informed, not yours. I need you to make progress on the project. Do you understand?”
Your chastised employee thinks to herself, “This jerk is power hungry and insecure! The only reason they need to be the one to inform Frank is that they wouldn’t have anything to contribute otherwise!”
In the company cantina, your employee sips a cup of coffee and says to a co-worker, “I thought this place was an ‘open’ environment! A ‘learning organization’! People are all about controlling information for power!”
In truth, most of the time this dynamic goes on, it’s not so blatant. The supervisor hints at the “proper channels”. The employee feels stifled, but not rebuffed. The organizational disease this ancestral behavior causes can be either acute or chronic. But a disease it is, nonetheless. Hard to diagnose. Hard to treat. Simply put, it takes conscious bravery from leaders, top down.
The conscious part comes from understanding that however it’s rationalized, controlling communication channels out of insecurity will corrode trust. And no trust, no commitment. No engagement. No bueno. For everybody.
At our company, anybody can talk to anybody, about anything. We don’t limit access for the reason of “chain of command”. There are business-related reasons why a question might not be answered, or a discussion not engaged in, however. You could ask what our innovation team is working on, but you might not get an answer because it would harm the business if other companies knew our plans. Don’t want to chance that. Need-to-know basis only.
Or you could ask whether Wilma’s absence was due to an illness or not, and be politely told that it would disrespect Wilma’s privacy to speak about her personal matters.
You could ask Garry Ridge, our CEO, whether or not we will get a new ERP system within five to ten years. He would probably say, “I don’t know”. And then he’d say, “I’m not qualified to have an opinion.”
Because Garry doesn’t lead through controlling information or access to it. He is not insecure about his role or competencies. If he thought he was no longer the right person to lead our company, he would be the first to say so. He knows what he’s not skilled or knowledgeable about. He’s growing and learning in the areas he wants to improve. He’s not pursuing skills or knowledge in other areas. Nobody’s good at everything, and if they try, they’ll be truly expert at nothing.
Leaders who no longer use the authority of their position to lead become phenomenal leaders, because they develop others to be better and better, with fewer limits. They are the leaders everyone wants to work for, the leaders whose “subordinates” routinely walk through brick walls for. They are the leaders who catalyze better results than those who insist on the chain of command.