Dear Leaders, 6 Clues Your People Are Hiding Things from You


Today my teenage daughter made a confession. We had been listening to the car radio and the DJs were challenging listeners to share their stories: Have you broken anything belonging to your parents?

I look pointedly at my daughter as I remember the two year old her had fed coins into a CD player rendering it inoperable. The coins were discovered by the repairmen.

She grins. She recalls a car drive six years earlier when she was sitting in the back of the car with my aunt.

“I was moving about in my seat, then heard a crunch and a snap. I sat up and saw that I had sat on your sunglasses and I was scared for dear life because you would be very angry. When we got home, I slipped it into my pocket and rushed into the house trying not to make anyone suspicious. I went straight into my room wondering where to put it so you wouldn’t find it and hid it in the bookshelf. You thought you’d lost your sunglasses and I never told you.”

I start laughing. “Is this why I keep losing my sunglasses?”

Hands on hips, she glares at me, “what are you insinuating?”

But the fact was, six years on, I wasn’t angry. I would have been angry if she had confessed right away. “Do you know how much these cost? Now I have to go buy another pair!” That would have been my likely reaction and she knew it.

We all know children lie and hide things from us. It’s survival instinct. Children need their parents and when caught out, will lie. My pets throughout the years have been blamed for wall scribbles, leaving the door open and eating the last doughnut. Ok, that last one could have been the dog. My daughter is an only child. At least I had a sister to blame.

This survival instinct runs deep.

Children grow up, graduate and enter the workforce. The need to cover up mistakes never quite goes away.

Come on, you must have hidden things from your boss. What didn’t you tell her? Your mistakes? That you had missed a deadline?

Or was it someone else’s mistake and rather than incur your boss’s wrath, you decide to cover up that mistake. Your boss is well known for firing people.

Many people would rather protect their colleagues than report bad news to their bosses. This, despite the fact that you have a non-retaliation policy and you won’t fire people. Perception trumps reality.

Today you are the boss

Do you really believe your people tell you everything? You do need them to tell you about problems early on so that you can fix it, manage stakeholders expectations, investigate or if need be, consult lawyers. Otherwise it will catch you by surprise and you will find out when the rest of the world does. On Twitter.

How do you know your people are hiding serious issues from you? Here are 6 clues.

Clue #1: Your Door is Closed

If you need to tell your people you have an open door policy, in all likelihood you don’t. You’re on a higher floor away from most of your staff and they need to book an appointment to see you. Your secretary knows you are very busy and no one can see you without specifying the purpose of the meeting. You do not like walk-ins or surprises. Your secretary behaves like Heimdall, the guard to Asgard.

Pic Courtesy of Marvel Studios

What Should you Do?

Set an hour or two everyday when your door is open and anyone can see you without an appointment. You may need to re-train your secretary’s protective instincts but loyal Idris, er Heimdall, will follow your lead. Make it clear to everyone that if something is urgent, they can call you immediately. When they do come to see you, and they will, be welcoming. At the start they will be unsure and will watch your body language for any signs of your annoyance.

Clue #2: You want results but are impatient when obstacles emerge

“Don’t come to me with bad news” or “I don’t care how you get it done, just fix it.” Have you ever said this? Of course you wish people would sort things out for themselves. After all that’s what they’re paid for. You are under pressure and you just wish your people would stop bothering you.

Yes, they will not bother you when they should.

Martin Winterkorn and the senior Volkswagen executives wanted Volkswagen to be the world’s biggest car manufacturer. This meant capturing the US market where emission rules were different. Rather than push the cars with petrol engines, VW’s leaders wanted their best selling diesel cars in the US. They set their engineers the impossible task of designing the diesel engines to meet US standards. The engineers didn’t dare say it couldn’t be done. After all, they’d be replaced with someone else. So they came up with the cheat device.

What Should you do?

First be aware that through no fault of your people, some goals may be impossible. The economic conditions may have changed or your organisation has lost some talented people. If you doggedly stick to goals without listening to your team’s concerns, they may resort to taking the easy way out – and in the case of Volkswagen and Wells Fargo, outright cheating.

Second, allow re-evaluation of company goals and examine poor results in a “listen to understand” mode. Empower your people to review results several times a year, asking them to propose the support they need.

Clue #3: You overact when you are told bad news

This is my weakness. I am a Drama Queen. When someone tells me bad news, my eyes and mouth widen in shock and I scream, “what!” This is normally accompanied by the words idiot, incompetent and expletives softened by motherhood.

Then I pause and take in the expression of the messenger. He normally has a “why did I tell her” look. I put on my best calm coaching voice and say, “thank you for telling me. What do you propose we should do?” My team have always found this funny. But I am aware that this can be intimidating for those who don’t know me.

What Should You Do?

It might be hard, but you need to demonstrate patience. Start by listening. Restrain any impulse to speak, curse or even put your face in your hands. Your employees are incredibly sensitive to your reaction. They read your expression and body language as cues in deciding how much they should tell you. If you stay open without judging, they will tell you more. You need to know that “more” and not the version carefully crafted not to upset you.

I once had a really kind boss who looked troubled whenever I shared bad news. I had to craft my words gently so it would not sound too harsh. That isn’t good either. Your people won’t want to see you hurt if you are too kind. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

4. When you don’t like something, you ask WHO DID IT?

What’s worse than wanting to know who to blame for a wrongdoing, is to try and find out who reported it. Last week, Barclays disclosed its CEO Jes Staley was under investigation by UK authorities. Staley had instructed his IT security personnel to find out the identity of a whistleblower who questioned the appropriateness of hiring his handpicked senior executive.

If you try to find out WHO, the message you send to the entire organisation is that this person will be punished in some way. People will clam up on reporting wrongdoing, even through an anonymous hotline, because they fear you will find them and fire them.

What Should You Do?

Allow any form of investigation to take place. Don’t get involved. If you do, you implicate yourself. Don’t pressure the investigation team or any other person in your company who is questioned or cooperating with the investigation. As the CEO of Shell, Ben Van Buerden discovered, the Dutch authorities had wire tapped his phone as he spoke to his former CFO on investigations into the Shell-Nigerian bribery case. Should you ask questions of the investigation, some people may consider this as interference and report you. If you are legally an officer of the company, request official status updates which other leaders of the organisation receive. If you are not, you don’t need to know until you are informed.

Clue #5: The people who report to you agree with everything you say.

In other words, Yes Men. You made them this way. They may have started by trying to advise you and see other points of view but you cut them off each time this happened. You say things like, “it’s my way or the highway”.

If your people praise you all the time, this is a very dangerous sign.

You cannot always be right. They are not being honest. You hired people to advise you, not agree with you.

Could this be why employees of TEPCO that operated the Fukushima nuclear power plant failed to address the risks before the tsunami six years ago?

“What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” – Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the Chairman of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission

What Should You Do?

Thank people for giving a point of view different from your own, and do so publicly. Recognise that it is hard for anyone to disagree with the boss. Elicit feedback before giving your own opinion. Once you announce a stand, it’s hard for people to voice contrary views.

Create a culture where you encourage robust discussion and debate. Decisions should not be made until sufficiently challenged and re-evaluated.

Take former Enron CFO Andy Fastaw post-jail-term advice to avoid Group Think and appoint the “tenth man” which can curb unethical behaviour. I would add women, given that women are great challengers.

The tenth man refers to a “member on every board designated to take the opposite position. Even if he agrees with the board members, it is his job to come up with every reason why they’re wrong.” Andy Fastaw

Clue #6: Your Meetings are Formal and Boring

The meetings you lead are formal. Your people ask permission to give their ideas beginning their sentences with, “if I may” or “I hope you don’t mind if I suggest…”. These are competent adults, they shouldn’t need your permission to speak.

Your meeting attendees speak in monotone and are disengaged. Some don’t speak at all and merely nod and take notes. You speak more than everyone else, mostly dictatorial. Everyone is relieved when the meeting ends.

Dinah Rose QC led a review of the BBC work culture in response to BBC personnel and celebrities being afraid to report Jimmy Saville’s sexual abuse for over four decades. This included the culture of meetings (see the Respect at Work Report).

In some teams, the only common bond they have is ‘the fear of the one who calls the shots.’ People also cited the fact that they were ashamed about how this made them behave – when they feel relief that it’s someone else’s turn, they keep their head down and squirm and then are full of shame at how they have just watched their colleague take a verbal beating. Such public displays are most often conducted by senior staff, managers, programme makers or others who are sufficiently confident of their position and reputation to give such a performance. They have learned the signals of authority and power it can send. Visible behaviour such as this has, by definition, a public impact. It intensifies the pressure on the victim and acts as a warning to others.

What Should You Do?

The most open culture is where you sit in meetings and everyone is bouncing with ideas, feedback, retort and sometimes in their excitement even forget you are there. Relax, sit back and watch them with joy. When they see you smiling, they get even more energised and open.

Open Up

Think back to the time when you were a child and was scared to admit a mistake. What would have made you feel safe to own up?

Children stop lying and learn to be truthful when they see us doing the same. When we begin to acknowledge our own mistakes and apologise. When we listen to their confessions with compassion rather than a sense of righteousness.

Today’s leaders are brave enough to be vulnerable and admit when they are wrong. When you get there, your people will open up and stop hiding. Until then, heed these clues.

There are many other clues. I stopped at six. Do share other signs which prevent people from being open with their leaders.

I am a Speak Up Advocate and Coach. I give awareness talks, facilitate organisations and coach leaders and groups on speaking up, learning how to create an open culture and reflecting on organisational values against reality. My focus: Ethics, Harassment, Wrongdoing and Safety.

Follow me on LinkedIN to get insight into various corporate scandals and Speaking Up. For further inquiries, you may e-mail me or send me a mail through LinkedIn.