Who do you go to when you have a problem at work? Of course, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the problem. Is it a technical problem? Go to those with technical expertise. A problem with a coworker? Your supervisor or HR is a good first step. A problem with your supervisor? Now it is getting dicey. A problem with the leadership and culture? That’s a tough one.
This past week I witnessed someone use a rather unconventional approach to address concerns about leadership and culture: an email that was distributed to hundreds in the company. Not many words were used, but volumes were spoken in the short message. This individual, whom I’ll call “Terry,” expressed frustration about being overworked and underpaid (not a very original complaint), tired, and demoralized. Terry also claimed to “speak for many of my colleagues.” Really? Did you actually get permission from these unnamed colleagues to send this email on their behalf?
When this message came to my attention, I was quite surprised. My assessment was that it is rather unprofessional behavior for Terry to voice concerns in this format, to people unknown to the author, and claiming to speak for unnamed others. Nevertheless, in an effort to understand why Terry chose this approach, I engaged in a dialogue to find out.
Terry and I spoke by email only, and only very briefly. It was a very cordial exchange. The rationale provided was based on two points: 1) There was a lot of after-the-fact support for the email, and 2) Other, “appropriate” methods had not previously worked to address the concerns. The problem with the first reason is that it didn’t occur until after the email was sent, so it isn’t a valid factor in making the decision to publicly air this dirty laundry. However, let’s assume the second reason is factually correct – that Terry has tried other means to address the problems with no success. I have no hard evidence to suggest otherwise.
Think about a serious leadership or cultural issue at your own place of work. Imagine a scenario in which you have actively engaged the appropriate decision makers to resolve the problem using professional strategies. You have communicated effectively, worked with a team to find solutions, exercised patience and tenacity, and offered solutions. In the end, though, nothing has changed. Your leadership hasn’t budged and the problem persists.
What do you do? Should you keep trying? Should you engage in more conversation and seek different solutions that might be agreeable to all parties? You’ve already been trying to solve this for more than a year, though. Will another year at it change anything? Or, should you employ Terry’s approach and send an email to a very large portion of the employees – many of whom you don’t know? Should you try to drum up support for your position and create a force that leaders cannot ignore? Or, is it time to leave the company and find a better fit with a different style of leadership and culture?
As a professional coach, I have always advised my clients to first work within, using professional methods, to change the system. Failing this, and assuming the situation is unbearable, I have advised my clients it is then time to look for a new place to work.
I have never advised anyone to send an email like Terry did. Terry doesn’t realize how much professional capital such an email destroys. Terry doesn’t realize how damaging the message was to self and perhaps to others.
I might be wrong, though. Can you think of a scenario in which sending a mass email would be an appropriate strategy to register criticism? Perhaps there are other approaches that I haven’t considered. I would like to see your thoughts.