It’s never fun to find out people are bad-mouthing you in secret. But when you learn it’s your team privately attacking you, there are severe risks to your ability to lead them effectively. Also, confronting team members on hearsay can create further damage to your relationships with them.
It’s not a crime to gossip about one’s boss or criticize them behind their back. In truth, most conversations can be defined in some way as gossip. So punishing them for merely expressing themselves is neither a constructive nor fair reaction. And any defensiveness will push them further away. When this happens, you start to become a leader without a following.
Despite these challenges, it is possible to navigate this dilemma in a way that not only contains the fractures between you and your team but even starts to improve mutual trust. Consider adopting these strategies to regain your effectiveness in leading those members of your team who are not outwardly voicing their thoughts on you.
Get to a neutral mindset, and objectively analyze yourself
Initially, you may want to confront your team, not just on their grievances but also on their unwillingness to come to you directly. Instead, take a step back and engage in some deep introspection on how well you encourage your team to speak up.
Why do you think they chose not to come to you directly? Perhaps it’s because you get resentful when receiving feedback. Or they may have a general discomfort with speaking with authority. And maybe your company culture doesn’t encourage upward feedback.
Since you may never hear the truth from them directly, you can start by looking at your style and whether you’ve made it hard for them to be honest with you.
Ask yourself a few introspective questions; for instance, “What have I done that might keep them from being upfront with me?” Two other questions to ask: “What nonverbal messages do I send when hearing disagreement or criticism? and “When given negative feedback, do I defend myself or make empty apologies simply to placate them?”
Also, consider whether you have enabled two-way dialogue through consistent coaching and feedback. In a 2018 study conducted by human resources company Reflektive, 94% of employees reported they want managers to address performance issues and development opportunities in real time. And as much as 75% of them would be more comfortable raising issues with their bosses if they were given frequent feedback.
To encourage your team to be honest with you, you can’t just tell them to do so. You must lead by example and set the tone for frequent mutual feedback sharing.
Own your mistakes before calling out complainers
After an honest self-assessment, you can address the situation directly with team members. But to avoid coming across as accusatory and make it safer for them to express their feelings, share your reflections before expecting them to open up.
I teach my executive coaching clients that to influence others, you must practice “relentless self-ownership.” Even if you disagree with your team’s feedback, you can own the mere possibility of truth in their message and your part in shaping their perceptions. And when you accept this publicly, you create a shift in others to own their behavior in the relationship.
One of my clients was a vice president at a Fortune 100 company who successfully used this method after hearing his team complained to his boss about his micromanagement. He believed his team wasn’t carrying their full weight but, upon reflection, realized he needed to back up a bit and empower them more.
When he met them, he didn’t just broach the subject of their complaints. He went “all in” on self-ownership. The VP said with conviction, “Today, I need to say that I’ve been a real jerk to you these past few months.”
“I don’t know if you noticed,” he continued, “but I’ve been disrespecting you by second-guessing your judgment, and I’m sorry. Can we talk about how I can do better?”
At this point, his team was shocked that the topic came up, but they didn’t feel “outed” or accused. After all, the VP took more personal ownership of the issue than they could have asked him to do. And because he didn’t force them to explain their private complaints but instead ask for help to improve, they felt safe and more willing to offer suggestions.
Go back to leadership fundamentals
As a leader, your job is to drive business results through your team in a way that empowers and inspires them toward their highest potential. But when you learn they are disparaging you, you may doubt your ability to motivate the very people you’re supposed to lead.
The best way to shift a team member’s commitment to their job is to double down on yours. So, go back to the basics of leadership and continuously develop yourself regardless of their opinions. A simple way to start is to assess yourself on four key leadership competencies:
- Decision-making through strategic thinking
- Execution on plans
- Team development
- Continued personal growth (stay self-aware)
Write down your strengths and weaknesses in each area. Then ask your peers, team, and boss whether you should “stop, start or continue” doing anything to be more effective in each competency. Gather their suggestions, implement a few at a time, and check in periodically to share your progress.
Merely collecting ideas from team members and practicing behaviors that take you past your comfort zone sends a powerful message to them. It shows you are leading yourself before expecting others to follow you. When they see you working on yourself, your team will not only have less unfounded criticism of you but will be more eager to talk through issues directly because they know you welcome their input for continuous improvement.
Consider the benefits of employee chatter
Despite all your efforts at improving yourself, you may still learn that your team continues to talk about you behind your back. But don’t despair; a study showed most everyone gossips at work about their management team. And fortunately, there are some unlikely advantages that their private chatter brings.
One benefit is that workplace gossip provides valuable information sharing that you can’t always communicate. Many employees report that gossip is the primary way they learn about matters within the company. And when you must be discreet or are too busy to communicate at scale, your team’s watercooler discussions may keep everyone up to speed. Not to mention, their gossip can keep you apprised of potential problems that lie under the radar.
Another benefit of workplace gossip is that it may reinforce company values in a high performing culture because it keeps lagging coworkers in check. And learning about others’ situations through gossip can trigger the self-comparison that drives team members to improve themselves.
Lastly, the team that gossips about you may find themselves less stressed as research shows spreading information about troubling events alleviates the anxiety from it. In the era of COVID-19, consider that gossip may enhance your team culture through stress and social distance because it helps them cope and stay connected.
Ultimately you may never like that your team is privately disparaging you, but following these strategies can help you capitalize on the opportunity to develop yourself as a leader and foster deeper trust with your team.
Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, 3M, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and more. You can access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team and receive his monthly newsletter.