Is suggesting things to your boss online, Right?

Today someone called the Community Manager (that’s me) to request that a comment posted by their employee be removed from the intranet site that all 30,000 employees have access to. The comment is in response to a corporately-supported article about supervisors, which invited people to share their thoughts online. The comment that incited the phone call isn’t offensive–it simply stated their opinion on what their supervisor could do to improve.

It is interesting how online dialogue shifts dynamics and creates opportunities. Many people are fearful to speak with bosses about their ideas and concerns. Social media use in the organizational realm creates space for people to share ideas, concerns, perspectives and questions out in the open. This openness increases the sense of urgency and level of importance for the those accountable for the issues raised. Send an email to a couple of people and you might get a response someday, post it online and it could garner much more, faster.

The chat between the boss and the Community Manager ended well—the conclusion was that this could be turned into an opportunity for the supervisor and employee to have a conversation. Likely a conversation of the sort has happened before, but this time the employee isn’t alone. The power dynamics have shifted. Her comment (which will remain on the site) has credibility and backing, as it was prompted from an invitation endorsed by Executive. She now stands with the community of employees who like her have courage to share their thoughts, and supported by people who’s role it is to encourage people to do more what they feel is Right.

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Nina Adrianna

And ironically, a few minutes after I posted this, the employee requested to have her comment removed. And here I was being all optimistic.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

It’s understandable that employees might be fearful of speaking to their boss but one should make the effort to build that relationship with their boss. The best bosses I have had were because I opened up the dialogue and built up trust. I didn’t always agree with their decisions but I understood and respected the decisions because I felt that I was given a fair hearing.

Posting online in hopes to pressure the boss is not good because you are essentially saying that you don’t trust your boss to treat you fairly. Now, if that is case, then you want to find another job because you have bigger problems than not having your ideas fairly considered. If you do have a trusting relationship with your boss, think of how you would feel if a person who you thought trusted you enough to come to you instead chose to publicly express their differences with you.

And be careful about doing what you think is right. I’ve charged off before and did what I thought was right and then found I only had part of the story or completely misinterpreted what the person intended. Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before you start applying motives to their actions or decisions.

Peter Sperry

First — Never post anything online for public consumption that you would be unwilling to discuss face to face in a private conversation.

Second — if you have sufficient access for a private conversation (ie. the boss in question is the immediate supervisor not someone 4 levels up), go that route first.

Frnakly, I can think of zero instances when it would be appropriate to conduct a dialogue with an supervizor online rather than in private. If the trust level is so low the converstion needs to be open to the world, it is time to find a new job.

Nina Adrianna

Thank-you for your feedback @Harlan, @Peter and @Bill. I think this is exactly why I posted this–I needed feedback on my position. I am definitely open to changing my stance and your perspectives help.

I’m not sure, though. If we’re talking open government, where government is going to be transparent with its accounts and its processes, which will inevitably include some uncomfortable bits sometimes, should we not be building that culture internally? The hesitancy of someone stating online things their boss could do better is exactly the same sort of hesitancy we have in sharing how we operate with the public. It sucks having faults, both at an individual and organizational level. But if we keep it all in private instead of sharing it openly, aren’t we limiting ourselves in our solutions and growth?

I know it’s all in how you say things and in this case it’s subjective (I didn’t think it was really harsh), but regardless, where is the line between saying something and challenging us to be better people and a better organization, maybe a bit of a provocative way (maybe as a last resort), and not saying it at all for fear of offending someone?

Peter Sperry

@Nina — I was taught in NCO academy to always praise in public and criticize in private. The Army had learned over the past 2000 years that junior enlisted like to be held up to their peers as role models and respond better to constructive suggestions when they are not embarresed in front of their colleagues. I’ve found the admonition works equally well managing up as managing down. Actually, I’ve found that many of the very best personnel managment and development tools came out of NCO and Light Leaders Academy but that is another post.

Nicholas Charney

Nina – I’m loving how you managed that, you created an opportunity from a stumbling block. That is the most important part of teaching in this field right now. Great work,

Nina Adrianna

@Nick — lots of opportunities. Everytime there is a tension created and someone is placed outside of their comfort zone, there is an opportunity for individuals and the org to learn and grow. 🙂

@Harlan – I’m referring to the culture. I definitely agree that citizens don’t what to know what’s going on with our internal dynamics. But, if we can create a culture of openness, in which we can share ideas and thoughts online, then we will be in a better position to expand that culture of openness towards #opengov. Feeling comfortable with sharing info has to start somewhere….No? I know I’m drawing the line too far for some, and want to know how far to pull it back in….

Robin Farr

First, I really like how you responded to the call from the supervisor and agree that you turned it into a great opportunity. (As somewhat of an aside, I’d be interested in whether the employee’s follow-up request was because the conversation was constructive or because this person got called out for having done this – I suspect that’s why your optimism is challenged.)

Second, I tend to agree with others who say this sort of thing where a specific person or situation is referenced (or even inferred based on the comment and who’s posting it) is really not the most appropriate way of going about things. Knowing what I know of what this particular dialogue invites, the question is really about what supervisors generally in the public service need to be more effective. It’s not about what any particular employee’s supervisor needs. That’s really a better conversation to have directly with your supervisor.

But if I were the supervisor in question, I’d absolutely take the opportunity to talk to this employee about the suggestions or concerns. I’d also enquire as to whether it was posted on the forum because that person isn’t comfortable bringing it up directly in person, or whether it was just posted a bit thoughtlessly without considering the identifying factors.

I think what we as an organization need to realize from this, though, is that if we invite this type of input it’s likely to elicit comments that wouldn’t come out in other forums. That’s both an opportunity and something to be mindful of, specifically as it relates to the chance that it will also elicit comments about specific individuals or situations.

Dannielle Blumenthal

This is an interesting anecdote to me for a couple of reasons.

First – great job initiating that conversation…very smart and resourceful and shows that you really understand that your job extends past its usual boundaries sometimes. Whoever you work for is lucky to have you on their team.

Second – Even though the followup conversation occurred, I suspect that the working relationship is seriously damaged by what the employee did, if not completely broken. Clearly there were pre-existing communication and trust issues going on here. Turning to internal social media was probably passive-aggressive on the part of the employee rather than totally constructive and “innocent.” Evidence is that a) the employee couldn’t make the suggestion to supervisor first and b) the supervisor couldn’t speak to the employee directly first but rather had to go to you. I wonder how it will turn out.

Third – I wonder how the workplace is going to be affected by the generational shift going on in terms of how people complain about bad bosses because there have been good and bad bosses for as long as time, and people have always complained. In addition to filing a formal complaint, there is the grapevine (e.g. verbal complaints); email (in writing, but one-to-one, usually); and then social media (one-to-many — public in nature). Are we headed to a different kind of workplace because people know they will likely be “rated” in public or at least embarrassed in some way if they cross someone? And that “different” can mean many things – a fairer workplace, because everyone’s ideas get considered equally; a less diverse marketplace of ideas, because people are afraid of insulting someone and so go along with groupthink, etc.

All in all very interesting.

Andrew Krzmarzick

From a fellow community manager’s perspective, it’s definitely a tough call and what I like about your approach is that you encouraged a conversation…and not necessarily for that conversation to occur in the online forum!

As to whether the employee’s comment should have remained after the supervisor requested that it be taken down, I also agree with your decision to not take it down until they had spoken. There was a form of censorship that was happening there and I am glad that you stood up for the employee…

On the employee’s behavior: I don’t know if that was the best tactic. It may have achieved a desired end – to vent and/or be heard…but at a huge price. There was a much more politically astute course of action…and I agree with Peter and Harlan’s thoughts below.

On the supervisor’s behavior: Dannielle raises a great point – one of the new leadership skills is going to be knowing how to approach this kind of behavior. Some supervisors may have felt a knee-jerk reaction to defend themselves publicly…good that the sup didn’t do that…could have got out of control quickly. But I also don’t agree with the ‘silencing’ approach either. Best first step for the sup: talk to the employee directly.