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Looking for a great leader? Your current employees have recommendations

Problem-solvers may dwell amid the hidden discussions within your organization, writes this emergency room doctor.

Looking for a great leader? Your current employees have recommendations
[Photo: Dmitry Kovalchuk/Getty Images]

People are talking. And as a leader, you aren’t always aware of under-the-radar back-channel issues being discussed by informal networks within your organization.

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These hidden discussions can be found in text messages or side conversations, and include rumors and dissent among team members, as well as fresh ideas for better ways forward. Often overlooked by organizations, these views can be the monsters in the closet that derail teams and throw strategy off course—or they can be instrumental for leaders who can shine a light on them.

Leaders routinely avoid or dismiss them, yet back-channel views are an underestimated force to combat bias and drive change. Effective leaders must bring them forward and face them head-on.

And research shows that discovering the views of “leaders without titles” can be critical to organizational success. Identify these individuals, give them resources and decision-making power, and help them develop.

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One example involves a chief medical officer of a large healthcare system. Teresa championed a change in her organization’s electronic health record (EHR) system—the key operating system of healthcare. This transition would alter the way her colleagues document each vital sign, treatment, and patient visit. It would also transform the processes by which care providers and their patients communicate.

Teresa recalled a large physician group that successfully adopted a new EHR system. That group had predicted the limitations of its formal hierarchy and decided against a top-down decision-making model for the complex transition. The group enlisted Keyhubs, a software services firm specializing in social network analysis, to understand the informal network and its influence within the clinic.

The firm conducted a confidential survey of the clinic staff to assess its collaborative ecosystem, asking questions such as Who is the “go-to person” or crucial knowledge leader for operational tasks? Who do you think is most open to change? Who is most likely to block new systems or change?

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The results uncovered some surprises: The individual most highly regarded as a leader during times of change held no formal leadership title, while the individual most likely to block change or innovation was the physician group’s formal leader.

C-suite leaders should consider this finding as they so often make important decisions that impact their organizations and operational units, representing many opinions, experiences, and perspectives.

The power of good leadership

Leadership behavior research has proven effective in reaching back-channel sentiments, showing how key behaviors among leaders directly affect well-being and satisfaction at work.

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Lotte Dyrbye, chief well-being officer for the University of Colorado School of Medicine, studied how leadership behaviors affect the satisfaction and burnout rates of employees.

In one study, 57,000 Mayo Clinic employees were sent a picture of their immediate supervisor and asked to rate their boss’s behavior. Some 40,000 employees chose to rate their immediate supervisors anonymously across nine metrics, including how well they empower them to do their job, and whether they treat them with dignity and respect and encourage them to suggest ideas for improvement.

Underscoring the importance of leadership behaviors, the research showed that for every 1-point increase in one of these leadership behaviors, there was an 11% increase in the likelihood of satisfaction and a 7% decrease in the likelihood of burnout within a leader’s work area.

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Why bring the back channel forward?

The back channel flourishes when leaders stifle individual perspectives and make unilateral decisions. Each of us requires autonomy and purpose to maintain psychological well-being. Autonomy occurs when our colleagues sense that what they think matters and believe they can influence outcomes.

Our sense of purpose is strengthened when our organizational mission and values reflect our own. And if our organization salutes teamwork, respect, and communication, our leaders and decision-making process must reflect those priorities.

When we ignore the back channel, we stifle individual well-being, decrease engagement, and provoke resistance. Our colleagues become less effective, strategies suffer, and employees resign.

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There are the meetings, minutes, and formal protocols created by leaders with titles, and there are the side chats, nonverbal reactions, and well-formulated plans within the network of informal influence of leaders without titles.

Both the formal and informal need to coexist in harmony. If we show up to the meeting but only a few voices are heard, the back channel invites us to speak up and be heard. The back channel will listen and validate, even if leaders will not.

How do you bring the back channel forward?

Bring the back channel forward during team meetings and one-to-one meetings with colleagues. How? Ask illuminating questions to invite different perspectives.

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There are three types of illuminating questions you might ask: How can we best meet this challenge?; What rumors have you heard?; and What are your fears and worries?

Write down each of the responses anonymously and by theme. Each perspective highlights a different aspect of the team’s shared reality, now a collective voice of the group. Each disagreement, fear, and worry can characterize the challenge and bring the back channel forward.

What do you do with back-channel information?

Now that you see the back channel, you can create a shared sense of reality. Here are three ways you might respond:

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  • Debunk the myths. Clearly address where perspectives are not true. “It is not true that Elon Musk is attempting to buy us out.”
  • Embrace the truth. Directly own and address the uncomfortable truth. “We do need to respond to the decrease in market demand, and this may involve eliminating some positions.”
  • Mitigate fears and worries. Figure out options for how you might prevent fears and worries from becoming reality. If the fear is a loss of autonomy, address inquiries in a way that preserves that autonomy. If the worry is that a new process will reduce the sense of teamwork, find ways forward that leverage that teamwork.

Shining a light on the back channel helps make it a part of the main channel, averting the risk of missing out on untapped, hidden potential for your organization.


Dr. Richard Winters is an emergency physician at the Mayo Clinic and author of  You’re the Leader. Now What? Leadership Lessons From Mayo Clinic.

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