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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 11/13/2008

This is your monthly e-Newsletter from
Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Start Spreading The News!

  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

You’re a Manager (or Director or VP) in Engineering and you just learned that a peer of yours in Marketing is leaving the company.  Your bosses tell you to let your folks know that “Joe has resigned, effective immediately, to spend more time with his family” or some other transparent fabrication.  What do you do?

You have a boss who tends to promote his “ideas” or “solutions” that are really “style over substance” (see eN-080904 – Style Over Substance).  He has just shown you his plans for a new program that really makes little sense to you, but you are told it will be a critical new program in the company.  You are told to go to your people and push the company line and amplify the “style” message to your troops.  But you don’t believe in the “style” message and you know it will be difficult to convey it sincerely.  What do you do?

If you lead people at any level in a company you are often called on to start spreading the news about events or information that are or should be of interest to all employees in your company.  Usually this is a great thing, as it enables you to let your folks know what is going on in the company that may directly impact them and that they might otherwise not be aware of.  Spreading the news can help to encourage teamwork, build camaraderie, and inform people on company activities.  An informed workforce is generally one working together toward common goals.  The more your people are aware of what’s going on, the better they are able to work together within their own group and with other groups in the company toward these common goals.  This is generally the case whether the news is good, bad (but necessary to communicate) or neutral (e.g. just informing people about facts or changes in the company that people need to be aware of).  In such cases there are really no problems with spreading the news.

However, sometimes you are called on by your bosses to pass on information that is not completely accurate, or is misleading, or that you don’t really buy into, such as the initial examples above.  Others examples may be incomplete or misleading financial, sales, marketing, or other information, or news that simply misrepresents the facts.  Spreading false or misleading news is bad.  It is generally obvious (e.g. everyone knows that “Joe has resigned …” is management-speak for “We just fired Joe.”).  Spreading false or misleading news shows the dishonesty of the management team and demonstrates their lack of respect for their employees.  It demeans the people receiving the misleading news. And, if not handled properly, it can undermine your credibility and integrity as a manager.  You spend a lot of time earning the respect and trust of your people, and it can take very little to undermine that respect and trust (see eN-080207 – Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!).  You need to do what you’re told by your bosses, and you need to maintain your credibility and integrity.  How can you do this?

If you are told by your management to present some news to your folks that you do not fully agree with, first let your boss know that you have concerns about the news you’re being asked to present.  Help him to understand that, while you recognize that you may be putting yourself or your career at some risk with your reluctance to simply do as you’re told, you also recognize that undermining your credibility or integrity with your people is an even greater risk.  Fully explain your concerns, and see if anything can be done to address those concerns before presenting this news.  If your concerns can be addressed then you can present a more complete story that you can get behind and truly support.  If nothing can be done, but you trust your boss, then push on him to understand what you can and cannot say.  If you are given some latitude in how you can present the news, then present it to your people in a way that enables you to preserve your credibility and integrity (e.g. that you don’t personally agree with the news, but have been asked to present it as the official company position or direction; or, that while you may not fully agree with the news you’re presenting, you understand the logic behind it and are willing to give it all you’ve got; etc.).  If you are not given any latitude then state to your people that management has asked you to present the following information.  If your people raise questions, then reiterate that you are presenting the information precisely as management has asked you to and that you are not able to elaborate on it in any way.  Your body language or your phrasing may help to get the message across that you are presenting what you are being told to, but that you may not be fully buying into it.  Offer to take their questions or concerns back to management or invite them to ask management directly.  This enables you to present the news that meets the demands of management (that you may not agree with) and maintain your credibility and integrity with your folks. 

If you are spreading such news through managers reporting into you, and asking them to spread it to their folks, then have a more in-depth meeting with your managers to apprise them of the facts as fully as you can.  Let them know the message they must present, but let them know the full story (to the extent you are allowed) so they won’t undermine their credibility and integrity with their folks.  You have worked hard to build a team that depends on each other and delivers and even soars (see eN-081002 -- Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!), and you can’t afford to hang them out to dry with a less than full and complete understanding of the situation.

Then there are sometimes situations where you are asked to spread news that is far more serious and somber; situations that may directly affect the lives of you and your people in significant and life-altering ways.  In such cases the situation and the impact may be agonizing. 

My friend, Lee Beaumont, who suggested this topic, faced such an agonizing situation.  The company he was working for was being sold on terms that were devastating to the employees.  Some people were losing their jobs, and those remaining were being sequestered in a dying company.  He was told to convey leadership’s message and he didn’t believe in it.  He was torn between a) loyalty to the company, his duty as a manager, and following orders, and b) his concern for employees as human beings he had grown to care about, and his own sense of integrity and sense of what is right.  On site, he towed the company line within boundaries established by his personal integrity. Off-site, he participated in frank discussions with trustworthy employees within boundaries established by his responsibilities to his employer.  Eventually he also lost his job there, though not as a result of the off-site conversations. The employees ultimately launched a class-action suit against the company.

I had a somewhat similar situation at one of the companies I worked for where I was being told to put in place a reorganization that I felt was ill-advised and wrong.  I discussed it at length with my boss, made revisions that I thought I could live with, but shortly before I was supposed to pull the trigger and “start spreading the news” I decided that I could not go through with it.  I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do.  I chose instead to resign for “health reasons”, which was truthful (I wasn’t getting much sleep, my blood pressure was off the charts, and I was constantly on edge), but not the full truth.  I examined the alternatives and chose the one that I felt was most right for my people and for me at that time.  Fortunately I was in a situation where my personal financial situation allowed me to make this choice (although it still meant a considerable financial hit), but most people are not in such a situation and their agonizing choice may be even more difficult.

In such difficult situations you need to make your choice as to what to do, and it is hard!   How far do you go to tow the line for a boss or management team who you believe is going in the wrong direction?  When do you step in and say, this is enough, our employees matter, I have integrity, and I’m just not crossing the line?  Where is the line?  The only person who can make these decisions for you is you, and it can be hard and life-altering!  [See also eN-050804 – Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!, eN-070906 – Show True Professionalism!, and eN-070607 -  Shield Your Troops!]

There are clearly situations where uncomfortable news must be spread throughout an organization, and it can be critical that such news must be presented in a uniform way.  However, there are ways to do this without destroying your credibility and integrity.  Credibility built with care and trust can be all too easily damaged.  Think carefully about how best to proceed before you start spreading the news!


Note: This topic was suggested by my friend Lee Beaumont in response to my newsletter on style over substance (see eN-080904 – Style Over Substance).  Lee always provides thoughtful comments, which I greatly appreciate, and was responsible for my previous e-Newsletter eN-071004 – The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game.  I thank him greatly for his great comments and for his significant contributions to Effective Engineering!  You can learn more about Lee at his websites www.simplyquality.org  and www.emotionalcompetency.com.  Two of his specific articles on trust and candor can be found at: http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/trust.htm and http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/candor.htm.

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