Just about everybody, after entering kindergarten, will become involved in talking about another person behind his or her back. Sometimes comments can be hurtful, sometimes innocuous. However, if correctly framed, “behind-the-back venting” can also be constructive, not to mention therapeutic.
It’s a national pastime for everyone to think that he or she is smarter than the boss. Many times, an employee can and certainly should outshine his or her superior on specific subjects. As a boss, you can be sure your people will compare their abilities and creativity with yours and second-guess your strategies and practices. Therefore, I suggest that you facilitate the process so that talking behind your back can occur more regularly, on your terms, and be productive to boot.
There are some very simple and effective methods to providing “employee back-talk time.” As CEO of my Fortune 500 company, I discovered that I could control this process by structuring a means where all my direct reports could have an open forum to take their best shot at me. Early on, I created an Operating Committee, which was composed of my direct reports and other key corporate managers and executives who had to carry out company mandates and run the place day in and day out.
I attended only one Operating Committee meeting and made a statement that took less than a minute. I simply said that this would be my first and last appearance at “your” weekly meetings and that, going forward, the group would set its own agenda. I emphasized, however, that on every agenda there should be “back-talk” time, during which participants could vent their frustrations and talk about any traditional unspeakables even if they reflected negatively on my leadership, decisions or capabilities. I stated that the only thing I asked was that once the committee thought I was making some big mistakes, someone must be appointed to come and tell me with my promise of immunity from prosecution. I made it clear to the Operating Committee members that their job was to make me better and, to facilitate that, they could talk about my shortcomings, real or perceived, behind my back.
Now, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, and I knew that not all of the comments would be complimentary. I approached the process in a very Machiavellian manner, knowing that if I could get past the bruised ego, I could become a more effective CEO and ultimately deliver better results for all constituents.
Each week, my people were able to identify my errors, which were often plentiful. At times, I observed the folks leaving the Operating Committee meetings with a very satisfied smirk on their faces. Why? Because they got whatever was bugging them off their chests. They were able to compare notes, and I think, in many cases, they realized that what might have been festering as a big problem was, in the overall scheme of things, not particularly significant.
Another ancillary benefit of the behind-the-back talking is that it tends to diffuse situations that might otherwise grow to biblical proportions. This release enables the team to move on to issues of greater importance.
There are a number of other practical ways to foster venting in your organization. During particularly tense times, it is appropriate to excuse yourself from a planned dinner after a day of meetings with employees because your gut tells you they need to have time to themselves. It takes a certain confidence, including a healthy ego, for the leader to foster this process. Most of the time, when I bowed out of a dinner with subordinates, I knew that my employees’ ensuing collective catharsis would give them satisfaction and refocus their efforts.
In the public arena, our country’s leaders have all experienced a not-so-behind-their-back venting, particularly by the media, within minutes of making a statement. Pundits would dissect what was said right, wrong or that was irrelevant. This ongoing safety valve has served citizens well and provides an effective method for public officials to gauge acceptance of their actions and plan their next steps.
You, as a leader, can use similar “back-talk” techniques to maintain equilibrium in your company and reduce both petty and deep-seated distractions that impede progress. Being a good manager means accomplishing objectives through others. Being a great leader means keeping the team focused and communicating with you and each other.
Politics in business and talking behind the boss’s back aren’t always negatives, as long as you manage the process and encourage it with your blessing.
MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.