Getting things changed: We must talk to the boss!

We often think that it will be enough to talk to the boss to solve the big problems of the organization. This is unfortunately false, and this often reflects organizational naivety and, above all, a refusal to take responsibility on the part of managers who have much more power than they think.

The story takes place in a big company. Inept decisions succeed one another, poor, but politically-savvy managers are promoted while competent ones are dismissed, a situation so absurd that even the old accomplices of the system, meaning HR, end up being themselves uncomfortable. One of the HR directors of the company believes he should go see the CEO to tell everything for the madness to stop. Should he really do that? The question is important: he is particularly concerned about saving the career of an executive who is highly competent but not really in line with the party (meaning that he does not do enough politics and does not go to the head office often enough); His departure would be universally seen as an injustice and a loss for the organization, except for the upper floor, that of the chiefs. Hence the idea of talking to the CEO: “He must absolutely realize what is going on.” believes the HR executive.

Asked to give some advice on how to best prepare this crucial meeting, I was hard pressed: 5 minutes to convince the CEO! I could not help thinking of what was said under the old French regime, when the people saw negligence and injustice: “The King is good, but he is badly advised, badly surrounded. Ah if only someone could tell him!” The King is good… But those who said that forgot that the advisers are always chosen by the King, and that, in reality, negligence and injustice are produced by the system, a system of which the King is the center.

The attitude of thinking that one can, in the course of a crucial “eye opening session”, show the light to the supreme leader, who is good but blinded by his entourage, is more romantic than realistic. Deep down, it marks a great naïveté. Naïveté to think that the leader is mistaken and that it only takes an honest advisor to undeceive him, naïveté to think that it suffices that the leader see the light for everything to change miraculously; and especially naïveté to pose the problem in terms of “error”. What is most likely to happen is that the one who is going to shout “the King is naked” will get stoned; The Greeks had understood long ago that one should never be the bearer of bad news. This is no doubt what explains that every leader is gradually surrounded by a veil of lies from which it becomes more and more difficult for him to escape.


But above all “we must talk about it to the boss” marks a form of resignation from those who are most often in very high positions in the organization, and therefore de facto accomplices of what is going on there. Their awareness, when it arises, is welcome, but the question should not be “Wow it’s bad, we must talk to the boss” or rather more often “Please talk to my boss”, that I often hear these days, but “what can I do?” And here it is much less easy.

So in the case of my HR executive, I ended up suggesting not to address the issue during the appointment with the CEO – above all to avoid a bloodbath – and rather to see how, concretely, the new convert could act to save the manager. From his answer to this question depends the success of change in this organization. That is the only rule that can be stated. It throws the question back to each manager’s own responsibility.

Tell me...
Tell me…

A good way to do that would be for our HR director to question assertions and insinuations about the manager, to ask the accusers to clarify their grievances, in short to force everyone out of the woods. Call the bluff, as the poker players say. I always notice how powerful this tactic is: a large part of the organizational politics succeed because they are based on unspoken words that nobody dares to explain. When they are made explicit, their ridicule or iniquity appears in the eyes of all. The king is naked … It is above all against lies that managers must fight, and this is a good starting point to answer the question: “What can I do?”

It is therefore necessary to have ethics, i.e. to force the truth, to forbid the evasion of the problems by blaming a distant leader or to respond in generalities or insinuations, and a posture, i.e. to act on concrete cases at one’s level, without systemic pretensions, because it is by the example of concrete actions that the culture of an organization can be changed. The higher they are in the hierarchy of the organization, the greater the responsibility of executives in this field: they must lead by example. Unfortunately, in many organizations, we are far from it.

So the next time you meet a colleague who complains bitterly about the system and its aberrations, ask him/her “All right, and what are you doing, concretely, to change things?” And this question applies to you as well.

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