One of my take-aways from Bob Sutton’s book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, is this observation: everyone watches the boss. I’ve been a boss long enough to be generally aware of, and at times both amused by and frustrated by this phenomenon. Sutton explained it well and really drove home the point. If you haven’t read the book or heard the idea before, it’s pretty simple:
Everyone who works for you watches you really, really closely.
They look for signs of your mood, your feelings about various situations, what pleases or displeases you, who you favor, what you expect, where you’re headed — the list is endless. When you’re watched so closely there are bound to be mistakes of interpretation and significance. Grimace from that bad sushi you had for lunch? You must be displeased with the marketing plan. Smiling about a lovely dinner at home last night? The boss must like my design. Stressing about too much to do? The sales pipeline must have dried up; we’re all going down!
The observation phenomenon is highly asymmetrical. Even with as few as 10 employees, you’re going to spend a lot less time observing each person’s words and actions than they will collectively observe yours. But it’s not just a quantitative thing, it’s also qualitative. Employees observe you closely because you matter more to them than they matter to you. I don’t mean to say you don’t care about your employees — of course you do. But they don’t determine access to position, power, money and interesting assignments the way you do.
It comes down to a very deeply wired, highly evolved behavior. Look at our closest primate cousins, the gorillas. The head of the troop, the silverback, controls access to food, sex and shelter for the other members of the troop. Accordingly, he’s watched closely by the other gorillas, so they don’t lose out in the competition for resources. The silverback, on the other hand, doesn’t stand to gain or lose much from the troop’s subordinates, and he gives them a corresponding amount of attention.
One of Atomic’s senior developers, Patrick, once observed that no email from me is ever interpreted uniformly, and the range of interpretations can be extreme. And this is when I’m trying to intentionally communicate a single, clear idea! Over time, I’ve noticed I write shorter emails and include more meta remarks. This, plus keeping in mind the worst possible interpretation of my mails, are adaptive strategies to address the observation/significance mismatch. Imagine the breadth of confusion and misinterpretation which can arise from the hundreds of verbal, non-verbal, and unintentional messages being observed each day.
The observation phenomenon is actually heightened by a culture of transparency. When your “office” is a simple desk in the same big room shared by everyone, when you wander around the office on phone calls, when your time tracking system is open to all, and your calendar is visible to everybody, you provide even more fodder for potential misinterpretation. Sounds like something you should fix or limit, doesn’t it?
There have been times when I’ve pulled back from some aspects of transparency because of the pain and angst around the misinterpretations and premature judgments of those around me. In those cases I ended up feeling like I made the wrong decision. By succumbing to the temptation of avoiding the open flow of information, I let my employees off the hook of engaging constructively and responsibly, and I cut myself off from their ideas and perspectives.
I believe the better approach is to continue to operate transparently, to explicitly communicate the dynamic nature of the work I do, and to flush out and make socially unacceptable any immature, unproductive reactions to observations made because of our overall transparency. In effect, the solution to my problem is more transparency. Patrick came up with a funny way of communicating this to the office recently. He shared via email a working document on a strategic initiative we were considering. Part of the email contained this warning:
“Sending out working documents such as this one can expose ideas that have not been fully vetted. You agree that you will ask questions and participate in discussions before latching on to a phrase that troubles you and heading straight to [the local pub] to numb the pain of what you consider to be the worst decision ever made.”
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