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Finding the Safe Channel

I once met with a boss I had great admiration for, a boss who dressed the part, had a witty remark for everyone, intelligent and clearly marked for future big shot roles in the corporation. He seemed to like me as well, encouraged my growing collection of ties and appreciated the early starts and late finishes to my work days. And then one day I walked in and told him that some employees were grumbling about some initiative or another, repeating their logic for why it wasn’t the right path for our company, relaying what I’d heard but didn’t feel strongly about in my soul. His face grew dark, he looked me squarely in the eye and told me that I should never aspire to be the messenger for other people, because it was the messengers who always got shot. Welcome to corporate America, kid.

Fast-forward to today, I don’t wear ties much anymore. I work hard but don’t feel compelled to be the first one in or the last one out the door. And I’ve learned to always listen to but avoid repeating what other people say. But there are exceptions to this rule.

In a recent management meeting, I lobbed a hand grenade on the assembled managers, repeating a statement from the employee of another manager who stated that he had to cover his ass with some tasks that had to be completed. When you hear something like this you might hold that card for a moment alone with that manager, or maybe bring it to the company President to discuss in private, or leave it for others to reveal. When you’re a small company and highly dependent on each other, you must identify potential problems. Without revealing the department where the trouble lay, I tossed it right on the virtual floor in front of the encircled management team and revealed it for the underlying problem it was. The thing is, there’s a time and a place and an audience for everything. This wasn’t an opportunity to undermine, it was an opportunity to mark the channel.

When you’re out on the water, the ocean often looks tranquil and safe in all directions, but underneath the surface there are rocks and other hazards that can sink a boat if you blithely sail into them. When you identify threats, you must mark the channel, that others might continue on safely. There are some hostile environments where the channel isn’t marked, where you must fend for yourself. Progress slows dramatically in such places, and the bottom is littered with the broken hopes and dreams of those who foundered before.

You know when you work in a culture that encourages open communication. These are clear channels that enable progress and growth. It’s an essential element in drawing out the potential in any team, and when it’s missing the team reverts to an every man for himself mentality. That tie-wearing, hard-charging kid I once was was thrown to the wolf by some men and women who didn’t dare confront the boss with objections themselves. It was no surprise that that company soon folded under the weight of competitive pressure they couldn’t adapt to. We must feel empowered to mark the hazards else we’ll surely find our ship foundering on the rocks someday. Clear channels of communication foster safe passage.

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