Selective Disclosure


A simple way to look at and analyze the workforce--specifically, people's level of happiness--is to conduct what is commonly called a climate check, but what I like to call the "umbrella test." It works in a few succinct steps, formulated as questions: (1) What climate do I experience in my job? (2) What's the climate for the people reporting to me? (3) What's the climate for the people who report to them?

I like how the tabulated result paints an immediate picture of the situation and pinpoints the likely source of the problem. If the climate's really bad at the top, and it gets worse as you go down in the organizational structure, you know what's happening: management is making it worse, not better, as you go down. This is not a good situation to be in, to say the least. Essentially, it means the entire place is in some form of unhappy crisis, and it probably starts with you.

If the climate is rough at the top but then improves as you move down through the same structure, it means, obviously, that the people who report to you are somehow making the situation better--they're acting as the umbrella. They're shielding and deflecting the bad weather coming from up top. This is an improvement compared to the first example, and it also represents a form of hope, something to build on. It means you've got a solid core, which is fantastic, and that you're the one who needs to change.

What I've learned over the years is that my job is to try to shelter those below me from the inclement weather up at the top. But playing the part of umbrella is not always enviable. Sometimes, the person holding the umbrella is stuck in a position that compels him or her to hold back on the truth, "white-lying" to colleagues.

Rightly or wrongly, if people knew everything going on all the time in any business, nothing would ever get done. People would become overly worried about their jobs and everything that implies about losing your home, financial health, car payments . . . life! No, worry doesn't help the organization or the individual, so the key is to get rid of it. Hence the umbrella. It's not always fun to be the one holding the thing, but that comes with responsibility and is part of decision making. At some point, as the leader, your job is to make a decision. To act because the situation demands it. To know that the whole truth, at this stage, won't get any more "whole."

At some point, you will have to acknowledge the human condition. Some people do not deal well with any kind of change, so why create uncertainty? As a leader you have to accept human nature; it is not something that you can control, and this can be a hard lesson to learn.

Here's the way I see it. If an employee's function isn't directly connected to the object of worry, why let him in on the nasty secret? Like water off an umbrella, bad news tends to cascade. It turns into worry, which kills focus, which affects performance, which hurts business, which harms the numbers, which turns into more worry . . . Indeed, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each person within the team has a role and the information necessary for delivering results for that specific role. At some point every employee will be informed of what's transpired or what's going on, but in a crisis situation we need to perform. The performance is all about "the We," while emotion is usually only about "the Me."

This nice expression sums it all up: "Worry is like a rocking chair. It keeps you busy, but it doesn't get you anywhere."

And sometimes you have to tell colleagues little white lies for totally different reasons. In 2014 we rebranded and changed our name from ING Direct to Tangerine. This was 16 months after our sale to Scotiabank. As part of the process I was supposed to meet the then CEO of Scotiabank to get final approvals for our new name--Tangerine. This was so important to me, to the team. And I missed the meeting!

We'd been through the entire process, decided on the new name, and I'd already gotten my boss aligned with our thinking. I had to go see the incoming CEO at Scotiabank and represent a large team that had worked hard for 12 months during the transition, and I had to do it alone. I had left nothing to chance, over-prepared meticulously the night before. The meeting was at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. I could have sat at Starbucks from 8 o'clock in the morning on, but that would've been a bit much. And so I left the office in the northern part of Toronto and drove my own car (with plenty of buffer time before the meeting). But there was an accident on the Don Valley Parkway, and I was stuck in it. I couldn't get off. I couldn't move forward. I couldn't move back. Sitting there, powerless, it dawned on me: this is the professional equivalent of "The dog ate my homework."

A half-hour before the meeting was going to start, I called my boss and told him the situation. I'd only known him for a few months. I told him that I was stuck in traffic--the first such call I've ever had to make. Disappointed, he told me not to worry, he would handle everything. The fib? When I called my team they asked me how the meeting went, and I said, "It went well, we got what we needed, we got the green light"--an abridged version of the truth. But why?

How could I steal their victory from them? This was not about me and what I did. It was about the outcome and a great victory for the team.

I was deeply embarrassed and wholly disappointed that I'd let down people who had given me their full trust, all the women and men who were working on this pivotal project. When we discussed it, my boss just said not to worry. The groundwork had been laid over time and well in advance. This meeting was not going to be controversial. However, I should have been there. It was important to me that he know that I cared an awful lot about it.

Why lie to my colleagues? Yes, it made me feel better, and sometimes that's okay. But they deserved to feel the elation they had earned and I couldn't have muffled that. Sometimes you don't have to torture yourself more than you deserve, even if the dog eats your homework or if you forget the lending rates. These things don't change the quality of your character. They just make you human . . . and a little white-lie teller.

Life can be so much more fun if you can rid yourself of the guilt that comes with always letting someone down.

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