Sink or Swim: When employees vent about the boss, and banning phones from meetings

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—  

Q: I was on a break with a few people who are now reporting to me, and they started to talk about how badly the CCO is screwing up. Someone more senior than me didn’t hesitate to agree. Before my promotion I would have joined them in complaining, but I didn’t say anything. Now I’m wondering, what’s worse in that situation—being honest with people under me, or staying silent? I know the more senior person got points with people for saying what she really thought.

A: We’re not proud to look back and recall many times we had bad things to say about the big boss around people under us. Pure and simple, it’s not appropriate, it’s bad form and bad karma. All the things. It’s oh so human to vent about people above us who we judge to be making mistakes, especially when it can affect our jobs.

But there’s nothing to be gained and definitely something to be lost if you join in the bitching. You’re only fuelling poor morale. And if word gets back to the top, you could be on your way out over what can be objectively seen as a betrayal, and just plain poor judgment for someone with a leader title.

There is something productive you could do next time you hear others complaining about something a senior leader has said or done. If you think there’s a legit, important point being made, have a one on one meeting with the boss to raise the issue. Not to report people are complaining about them—in fact, try and leave others out of it.

But for instance, if you can play back the negative impact the leader’s words unintentionally had on employees, you do them a big favour. The leader has a chance to course correct. That example comes straight from our own vault: we were fortunate to have a GCD who told us honestly when we had done something that had bad, unintended effect.

We made it clear we valued that and encouraged all the leaders we directed to tell us when they saw problems of our making, for the sake of understanding, learning, and the opportunity to take appropriate steps. No, this isn’t easy advice to take. But know that all top leaders become disconnected from reality because no one tells them what’s really going on, for fear of upsetting them or penalty for speaking up. When you decide to gift them with the truth, the boss, your peers, your employees and even the company can benefit. We didn’t shoot the messengers, we often promoted them.

Q: I have been in countless meetings where people look at their phones more than at the people talking, and this creates a lot of problems. Since becoming a leader, I have tried and failed to persuade my team to leave their phones out of meetings. They just won’t listen. At best, a few will turn them over. How do I try and change this when people above me still check their screens, even with clients in the room?

A: Our collective addiction to phones and other screens is a hot topic. We’ve been going on about it since starting Swim with literally every group we work with. Leaders need to deal with it; the penalties for people being focused on screens rather than on the people speaking to them go far deeper than most of us would guess. Despite the social acceptability of having a phone in hand at all times—even in meetings—leaders and their people will always take a hit, maybe a fatal one, for those downward glances (like lost business).

Next time you wonder if it’s worth the discomfort of mandating no phones in meetings (nothing short of that goes far enough), keep in mind the alternative is allowing team members to signal this to the client or peer, “I don’t respect you”/ “You’re not as important as whatever is on my screen”/ “You’re boring”/ Your business doesn’t matter to me”/ “You don’t matter to me”/ “I don’t like you”. This is human nature, you can’t fight the optics.

Brains process these signals instantly and irreversibly. When a person talking receives this messaging, even though unintended, they start to disconnect from the listener. I don’t matter to you? You don’t matter to me. You don’t care enough to listen attentively to my thoughts? You must not care very much about my business. You don’t respect me? I don’t respect you. From there, trust is broken. This is often the beginning of the end of the relationship and even the whole piece of business. Know this other bit of human nature: clients buy ideas from people they trust.

It only takes one team member doing this to cast a negative halo on the whole team. Especially the leader. You let it happen. You’re the only one who can stop it—the people above you may not be prepared to take this on, but you can with your own group. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Start with yourself (we all do it, right?). And while you’re at it, stop doing it at home. Studies show the parent who glances at a screen while their child is trying to talk to them actively harms that child’s self-esteem. Been there and done that. There’s way too much at stake to give up on breaking addictive screen behaviours.

P.S. show this Simon Sinek video to your boss. Scratch that—show it to everyone in your life.

Q: A leader at another office in my network has been using one of my team members to help on a really good, big project. Today, I was asked if another one of my people, who the other leader thinks would do a better job, could take over. I dread breaking it to my employee they’re getting bumped, knowing it’s demotivating and could create friction with the co-worker who’s going to take their place. Is it fair to tell the unhappy leader to do the dirty work themselves, leaving me out of this? At least my team member won’t be angry with me, and I won’t be connected to problems that could come with this directive.

A: Well first we’d like to acknowledge, that sucks. And it happens all the time in networks that share resources. Talk to the leader at the other office to find out what’s not working. While they may not be prepared to offer your person another chance, you can still deliver something of value—feedback that helps that person learn and grow. Think through where the lessons are. Constructive feedback is the #1 way people learn on the job.

There’s another benefit to asking for detailed information. If what’s played back doesn’t sound constructive to you (e.g. it sounds like the leader is annoyed because they asked a lot of questions or took too long to deliver and you can spot they weren’t given proper time to do the task), then challenge the call. Especially if what’s at play appears to set up the next person to fail, as well. Time to stand up for your people.

This is all uncomfortable stuff, and many leaders, at every level, will go pretty far to avoid conflict. You may duck it by asking that leader to tell your person they’re off the project themselves.

And maybe that would work out—perhaps they will be the kind of person to help them learn something from it. On the other hand, they may not care enough or have the skill to deal with it in a way that keeps your employee motivated, with ego bruised but not squashed. Why not up the odds of things landing better by taking a deep breath and managing through this yourself? In the process you will demonstrate you care about them (hard to do that if you don’t deliver the news yourself). If you’re new-ish to leading it’s also good experience for you to think through a positive feedback experience where an employee could actually advance from the learning.

BTW we reached a point with one of our network office leaders where we stopped offering our people to work on their projects. Sometimes that’s where things have to go.

**Are you an emerging (or even experienced) leader facing a challenge in your role? Nancy and Janet have advice based on working with thousands of people from around the globe. Email your question to

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).