Safer Conversations with Management

by Steven M. Smith · 5 comments

Danger = Blaming ©2009 Steven M. Smith

You have what you believe is an important thought to share with management. You’re concerned though that management may dislike your message. How do you assess how safe it is to share your thought with management?

It’s certainly perilous if management regularly scowls, aims their finger at you and fires words such as: “You have no right to correct me;” “you never do anything right;” and “it’s all your fault.”

The more management copes with problems by blaming others, the less safe it is for you to share potentially sensitive information with them.

I don’t need anything to measure this danger—my body automatically feels it. But if you are someone who senses rather than feels things, note the number of times you encounter blaming by management. The larger that number, the more dangerous communication is with them.

Gauge Safety

Let’s use the following three categories to gauge environmental safety:

Secure (zero blame) when you share your thoughts with management.

Risky (blame is possible) when you carelessly share your thoughts with management.

Perilous (blame is highly likely) when you share anything that doesn’t support the party line.

Frame Your Thought

Let’s explore how the safety categorizes can be used to frame your message so that you minimize the risk of being harmed by sharing your thoughts with management.

Secure — Use Complaint with Recommendation

I relish working in secure environments. I can speak my truth without fear of recrimination. But if my thinking is scattered, management may label me as someone who doesn’t think things through. That label will limit both my access to management and my opportunities for advancement.

Rather than merely making a complaint as many people do in secure environments, show management your thoughtfulness by framing your communication as a complaint with recommendation.

Let’s investigate an example: As a developer, you notice that clients are bypassing the sustaining organization and going directly to people in product development for fixes to problems. Management tells you that fixing these problems is important. You experience a decline in your productivity as you divert time to conversing with these clients and fixing their problems. You notice your colleagues are experiencing the same effects. Furthermore, the development organization failed to deliver three critical features it had promised in the last product release.

You could merely complain to management by saying, “Those damn clients are circumventing our sustaining organization and chewing up my time.” What is management supposed to do with that? They can’t read your mind. Unless they have already have thought through the dynamics, they aren’t going to know what to do. You have burdened them with yet another problem.

Let’s frame the same information differently—”I believe a key element of our failure to deliver scheduled features in our least release was caused by clients circumventing our sustaining organization and bringing their problems directly to us (the developers). I recommend that we disable this direct access and return clients to escalating their problems only through the sustaining organization.”

You’ve registered a problem with management but, just as importantly, you have provided them an action they can take to solve the problem.

Management in secure environments appreciate people who make complaints with recommendations. They label them as people who think things through. That’s how I want to be labeled. I suspect that’s how you want to be labeled.

Risky — Use Puzzle

Let’s look at how that same information might be framed in a risky environment where your uncertain about whether it’s safe to speak your mind. A complaint with recommendation may expose you to danger in a risky environment, instead frame your thought as a puzzle.

For instance, “I am puzzled about whether there is a relationship between our clients going directly to product development for fixes rather than working with our sustaining organization and our inability to ship all the scheduled features in our last release.”

That statement is neither a complaint, conclusion, nor recommendation. You’ve suggested that there may be a relationship, but you aren’t sure. The puzzle is open for discussion, data exploration, and interpretation. If management probes, you can choose to provide more information and you can can help them reach a conclusion and solution. Otherwise, you can let the puzzle go knowing that the timing was wrong for that conversation.

Timing is critical for management to recognize things in risky environments. Puzzles offer the possibility for you to safely offer the opportunity for management to become aware of a situation. Puzzles also help you probe for whether the timing is right for communication with management on that topic.

Perilous — Use Silence

How do you frame that same information in a perilous environment? You don’t.

Maintain your silence. Perilous means sharing any thought that deviates from the party line will expose you to harm. It would be masochistic to share potentially sensitive information with management. If you need a catharsis, talk with a colleague or someone outside the organization.

Keep your mouth shut, hope for an organizational change, and look for a new job.

Final Thoughts

I like sharing my thoughts with management. They are my partners in producing the desired organizational results.

I am depressed by my recommendation that you keep your mouth shut in a perilous environment. I suppose that’s why I don’t always follow my own recommendation. But I recognize that 95% of my attempts were ineffectual and harmed me.

I am uplifted by recognizing that solidly framed communication in secure and risky environments will increase the chances of management respecting people’s thoughts. In my experience, puzzles and complaint with recommendation are powerful frames for communicating with management.

I believe in accepting the environment as it is now rather than how I would like it to be. If I’m hiking in the desert, I carefully monitor and consume my water so that I survive. Organizational environments can be like deserts. You are wise to carefully construct and share your thoughts. Your organizational survival and growth depend on it.

Wishing for you encounters with management where you see the palms of their hands rather than the tip of their index finger.

What’s your experience communicating in perilous environments? What tips will you share with me?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John December 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

Steven, I agree with most of you post except for the ‘talk to a colleague’ in a perilous situation. I see a problem with this suggestion. You will likely be seen by management as part of the problem because you are sowing discontent within the ranks. I’ve seen how one person’s negative attitude can quickly spread to a whole team. While the individual may have a legitimate complaint, and management should respond to it, in the meantime, the whole group can be demoralized. It is completely human nature to complain to our coworkers but too much and it can become unprofessional. If you can’t take complaints up, then take them out of the office.


Steven M. Smith December 16, 2009 at 10:43 am

John, Thank you for the feedback. I need time to ponder your points. I can see how sharing a complaint with a colleague could produce the unintended consequence of spreading and demoralizing the team. I think a team in a perilous environment is likely already demoralized. Perhaps another complaint will further demoralize them. What’s your experience? Any specific examples you can share?


John December 16, 2009 at 11:07 am

While being in a perilous situation is bad, you can choose how you react to it. If you choose to be negative and share your discontent with coworkers it can make the situation worse. Lets say you have four members on a team, one very discontent and three moderately discontent. If the very discontent individual continually points out problems and is constantly complaining, the other three will most likely become increasingly discontent as well. This may even take on a life of it’s own until the attitude problem of the team becomes harder to address than the original grievances. At that point the whole team has dedicated a portion of their day complaining to one another rather than taking action to improve the situation. I’ve seen this happen several times to teams of software developers that have been given unrealistic deadlines and scope.


Steven M. Smith December 16, 2009 at 11:16 am

John, Excellent points: You can choose how to respond to the situation. And complaining to a co-worker could make things worse.

Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective with me. -Steve


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