You only have to please me

Allegiance to the company by each team member always has to be the first commitment, not to the manager or to individual teams.

You only have to please me by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago I held a session for the senior management team at my company, which included executives and directors. We had some detailed information to share within a large and growing group of directors – some experienced and some newly minted. The information was structured well and the team charged with sharing and discussing it was very thoroughly prepared. As I observed the interactions, I saw a very high level of engagement with everyone absorbed by the activity. I heard a lot of conversation that indicated that people understood the day’s objective and were enthusiastically asking good questions. The afternoon wrapped up with positive feedback and requests for more sharing at this level of detail and depth.

Some days later I received a phone call from one of the director-level attendees. He was tentative at first, and it was hard for me to grasp what he was trying to say. Then he literally spewed out what was on his mind – his boss’ comments to his team’s attendees immediately following the session. When he relayed them to me, I could appreciate the difficulty that the caller was experiencing.

Mixed messages

The person in question had asked his team to gather after the session. Everyone was still excited from the whole experience because of the insight that they had gained. They felt energized and excited that they could contribute even more as a consequence of understanding the whole business in a lot more detail. Very quickly they came back to Earth when their boss indicated something along the following lines, “Everything that you just experienced at the meeting means nothing. The only thing that matters is what I have to say. You only have to please me.” With that statement, the good from the day was undone and the team of managers was rocked off balance – until the one person decided to challenge what the boss had said and connect with me.

I quickly moved to confirm the caller’s information by calling the other directors in attendance. Reluctantly the others shared virtually identical recollections – that their manager had repudiated the direction from the session and had indicated that they owed only a duty of allegiance to him. The common denominator was that everyone felt concerned for their jobs, believing the warning from their boss that they only had to please him.

Where loyalty lies

Of course, it is entirely reasonable for staff to deliver as their managers direct. Managers are responsible for getting their staff aligned to deliver the work that will deliver the company plan. They are the prime points of contact for their teams and as such they wield a great deal of power over staff because they direct, support and evaluate each team member. The message in this case was that allegiance was owed to the manager and not the company, and that is simply wrong. Loyalty to one’s company is above all other commitments and must be understood to be so by managers and staff alike.

Intoxicating power

This was a very revealing experience for me, showing the power of a manager to override company messaging that had been shared in an open forum with everyone present to hear it at the same time. I was surprised that the manager would have the nerve to do this, but it was clear that his sense of power over his staff was strong. His calculation of the risk that he was taking must have indicated that he could get away with it. That feeling of power must have been intoxicating, and intoxication can override good judgment.

But the message I had delivered about transparent and open communication had also taken hold as evidenced by the one staff member who was bold enough to speak up. I recognize that it took him some time to do this, but I presume that he was making his own risk calculation as to the power of his boss versus the protection of the company. Once there was a small chink in the armor of silence imposed on the director-level team, it all came cascading down in the face of direct, confirming questioning.

As it turns out, it is hard to keep secrets and it is hard to subvert company messaging and direction. In the end, we all owe our loyalties to the company, and it is that entity that we must please. You only have to please me? I don’t think so.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.