Don’t punish employees who raise problems

Divergent, dissenting voices are vital for growth and innovation. But some leaders penalise employees who raise problems, afraid of what those messengers might be pointing out. Accusing them of being the problem, instead of solving the problem that is being raised. Why do we do this? Because it’s uncomfortable to see our faults. It is this discomfort that makes us as leaders deflect and defend.

This happens when we’re uneasy and scared that, when we give the problem a name, we won’t know how to solve it. The space between knowing something is wrong, and not knowing how to solve it, is uncomfortable. It’s this discomfort that leaders want to get rid of. The tougher the situation is, the more likely a leader is to penalise the person raising the issue. That’s why, with values-based or ethical issues like sexual harassment or equal pay, it’s easier to punish and in some cases, fire those pushing for change, than to tackle the problem itself.

But “shooting the messenger” hurts your people and your business. Why? Because you stop your organisation from growing, and you also make it hard for others to speak up when they see problems or opportunities.

So, how do we change our behaviour as leaders? Here are some tips to help you face the stress head-on:

Instead of blaming someone for raising an uncomfortable or difficult topic, celebrate them for having the courage to raise it. Focus on the underlying problem, not the messenger who brought it up. Don’t say “I hear you have a problem.” Rather say, “I appreciate your helping us to get better.” If you suspect people aren’t bringing you problems, ask yourself why not. Maybe they think that you’ll dismiss their concern, or that you won’t do anything about it. To set the right tone, celebrate hard-fought, newly learned things, instead of the most popular or most productive things that happened in your company. This way, your people will see that you value innovation and creativity more than you value looking good, and that you really want the firm to get better.

Leadership, after all, is about solving problems. Between knowing there’s a problem, and not knowing the answer to that problem, is discomfort. Discomfort is not the same as being unsafe. It’s simply a temporary feeling we live with, while we work on things. If we run away from this feeling, we’ll never get the polished work. And this is the point. We want to get better. We want to grow. We want to disrupt. However uncomfortable it is, it’s important to work through it.

* Reposted with thanks to Harvard Business Review – see the original article at

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