Do you really know what’s going on? - Michelle Gibbings

A set of binoculars looking over a city skyline

Admiral Horatio Nelson is considered one of Britain’s best naval commanders, with a long and distinguished career culminating in the country’s decisive victory over Napoleon that ended the threat of a French invasion.

In 1801, he was appointed second in command to admiral, Sir Hyde Parker. This appointment was at the time of the French Napoleonic wars, and Britain’s main advantage over France was its naval superiority. Part of its strategy was to use that power to block any trading with France from other nations, such as Denmark, which had joined the League of Armed Neutrality.

After rounds of failed diplomacy, British ships were sent to Copenhagen to break up the league by any means possible and to secure an alliance.

The British ships attempted to enter the harbour, while the Danish-Norwegian fleet formed a blockade, and the Danes defended their position on sea and land. At a point in the battle, Nelson’s superior, Sir Hyde Parker, worrying that Nelson was suffering huge losses, hoisted the signal for him to disengage.

Nelson ignored this signal, claiming he didn’t see it because he was blind in one eye. He could only see out of one eye, having lost sight in the other at the Battle of Corsica in 1793. An hour later, the Danish ships were in ruins, and victory was Nelson’s.

This is where the saying ‘turning a blind eye’ comes from.

Nelson got a good outcome, but that’s often not the case when you turn a blind eye. Instead, the issue – deliberately or unknowingly unseen – remains, only to arise later.

It can be easy to ignore what’s around you or build systems, processes and a culture that shields you from what’s happening. As a leader, however, you don’t want to be the last person to know what is really going on in your team or organisation.

So how do you ensure that you are seeing and hearing all you need to see and hear?

Here are eight elements to consider.

Welcome all news
Welcome all types of information – even news that is difficult to hear.

Not only is your reaction a test of your character, but it also sets the standard for future events.

If you shoot the messenger the next time an issue arises, you’re less likely to find people willing to alert you.

Challenge yourself – are you receiving all types of news in the right way, at the right time, and at the necessary speed?

Talk to people at all levels of the organisation
Hierarchy can interfere with the information you receive, as details can be filtered and sanitised before they hit your desk and inbox.

The people around you may not want to look bad, and so may strive to paint the most optimistic picture of what is happening. Talking with people across and up and down the organisation ensures you have a better handle on what is happening.

Challenge yourself – are most of your information sources at the same level, or do you have the right mix of sources?

Beware of gatekeepers
I remember early in my career when I had to ring a senior executive in the London office. I assumed their EA would answer the phone and was surprised when the executive answered. When I expressed my surprise, he said, “I don’t want a gatekeeper filtering what I hear or who I talk with”.

It’s a comment that has always stuck with me. Whilst your support staff will often act with good intent, if access to you is so heavily managed that people find it difficult to see you, it will be harder for you to get a realistic assessment of progress and issues.

Challenge yourself – Do you rely too heavily on a few information sources in your organisation/team? Is your support team/person filtering who you meet with and what you read?

Walk the floor
Walking around the office and having random conversations is often an invaluable way of discovering what is happening. It’s also a way to build rapport and relationships with people.

While many of us are now in hybrid working relationships, this advice still holds. You can still walk the floor, and you can also do virtual skip-level meetings and find informal ways to catch up with people across your team.

Challenge yourself – Do you invest time in casual conversations and seek opportunities to converse with your team members?

Constantly be alert to the weak signals
Weak signals are all around us; to notice them, you must keep your eyes open to what is happening around you and be naturally curious and questioning.

If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. Trust your gut instinct and keep asking questions until you get to the heart of the matter.

Challenge yourself – Are you naturally curious or taking issues as they are presented without thought or challenge?

Invite differences of opinion
When making decisions, involve people with different perspectives and from diverse backgrounds. This will help ensure that you engage in broad analysis and debate before deciding. Out-of-the-box thinking often comes from unexpected quarters.

Challenge yourself – Do you have a diverse team with different experiences and backgrounds to ensure a range of perspectives are available?

Don’t silence the dissenters
Often, the person with the dissenting opinion or the person asking the probing questions will help you see the issue from a different perspective. Whilst this can be frustrating, it is helpful in the long run. You can also take comfort from the fact that you have examined the issue from multiple perspectives.

Challenge yourself – Do you genuinely welcome debate and different ideas or pay lip service to it?

Embrace the learning
Whilst news that something has gone wrong on a project or initiative won’t make you happy, be open to the learning that it offers.

Once a problem has been identified, you can do something about it. However, if it is unknown, it will likely cause more significant damage the longer it goes undetected. Be grateful that the issue has been found because you now have the opportunity to address it.

It is better to fail fast than to fail slow. Acknowledge the mistake, understand what caused it, and act swiftly to address

Challenge yourself – Do you look for the learnings from setbacks and issues?

Doing all of these elements takes leadership.

The upside is the more you adopt these actions, the more engaged your team will be. They’ll know that you have their backs. They’ll recognise that you support their efforts to try new things and to make progress.

They’ll understand that you welcome the chance to move forward with change. They’ll know that you want to know what is happening rather than be shielded from bad news.

As the Irish author Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

None of that can happen if you don’t open your mind to what’s really going on.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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