The CIO as a—Really Bad—Role Model


Morale in the IT organization had been poor for a long time. After other strategies to address the problem failed, the CIO—whom I'll call Brad—decided to try something new. He invited employees to volunteer to be on a team of non-managers that would evaluate the morale problem from their perspective and submit recommendations for improvement. Brad and his senior management team committed to take their recommendations seriously and act on them.

Morale in the IT organization had been poor for a long time. After other strategies to address the problem failed, the CIO (whom I'll call Brad) decided to try something new. He invited employees to volunteer to be on a team of non-managers that would evaluate the morale problem from their perspective and submit recommendations for improvement. Brad and his senior management team committed to take their recommendations seriously and act on them.

The volunteer team came up with a long list of recommendations. And now, Brad had called the employees together to give a presentation on senior management's plans for implementing them.

As people arrived for the presentation, he gave them a feedback form and asked them to jot down their reactions to the plans he'd be describing.

So far, so good.

When Brad looked through the feedback afterwards, he found one form filled with nasty, pointed comments about him and his managers. The form was, of course, unsigned. Things then took a nearly disastrous turn.

Don't Go Away Mad, Just Go Away
Despite being an astute, level-headed executive, Brad blew up. And in his blown-up state, his first impulse was to send an email message to all IT employees saying that the person who had submitted the highly negative feedback was no longer welcome in the company and should pack up and leave.

Just imagine! If he had done that, he would have fed the already overactive grapevine, damaged his reputation, undermined the efforts of the volunteer team, and sent morale plunging even further. He would have also wiped out the results of my work there as a consultant. Meanwhile, the person whose feedback triggered this irrational response probably wouldn't even have known that he/she was its intended recipient.

No one craves negative feedback. Still, is this any way for a leader to respond? Especially given that he had only recently been promoted into the CIO position and his reputation as a trusted leader provided a strong foundation for making significant improvements.

The senior management team had to practically sit on Brad to prevent him from sending the email. As an outsider, I wasn't invited to participate in the sit-on—fortunately, they succeeded.Behavior Unbecoming a Leader
One of the most important responsibilities of a CIO—or anyone in a leadership position—is to serve as a role model. If he invites feedback and then suggests by word or deed that only positive feedback is welcome, he fails as a role model. He also guarantees that critical feedback—the kind he really ought to hear—will be withheld.

I suggested to my client—one of the senior managers—that a CIO-as-role-model might respond with the following email message:

"At the presentation on the 9th, we invited your feedback. Thanks to all of you who responded. Some of it was positive and some wasn't, but all of it was helpful. However, some of the feedback left us wanting to know more. If those of you who submitted unsigned feedback would contact me, I would like to meet with you so I can better understand your concerns. You will be helping me make this the kind of organization you want it to be.

For those of you who have not yet submitted feedback, it's not too late. Simply send me an email message or jot your comments on a sheet of paper, and let me know your reactions—positive OR negative—to the information I presented.

I want to make this an organization in which people feel comfortable in letting me—or any of the managers—know their grievances and dissatisfactions. We have a long way to go, but I'm convinced this goal is attainable."

I was hoping he'd send out a message along these lines. He didn't, but at least he also didn't send out his first choice of response. His senior management team keeps a close eye on him these days.

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

How to improve morale: drive out the people whose morale is lowest. NOT!<br><br>Especially in a situation where morale is bad, managers need to realize that their staff may well blame their managers for their misery, and that in some cases those feelings of blame may come out in less-than-amiable ways. Ask for feedback, and you may not like what you hear.<br><br>In reality, feedback is just feedback. Whether it's negative or positive depends on how you choose to receive it. Even unpleasantly worded missives may contain useful information -- however hard it may be to read them.<br><br>Thanks for an interesting (as always!) post.../Fiona Charles

June 16, 2010 - 9:49pm
Anonymous's picture

Fiona, thanks! "Feedback is just feedback" -- what a quotable quote that is. And so worth remembering. It's interesting the way people tend to reject or dismiss feedback when they view it as negative, but readily accept it when it's positive. Yet, both ways, it's just feedback. And in both instances, how you choose to receive it (to quote you) makes a difference. <br><br>Apparently, though, it never occurred to this CIO that he might receive negative feedback -- even though it was the rampant employee negativity, in the form of poor morale, that led to the effort to make things better in the first place and thus his presentation to the troops. <br><br>It also strikes me that people are rarely educated in how to deliver feedback, so sometimes their well-meaning feedback comes across as harsh when they don't intend it that way. There's an art to giving feedback -- a topic for a future blog, methinks. Thanks for the inspiration! ~Naomi

June 16, 2010 - 9:50pm
Anonymous's picture

Oh - this is one of my pet peeves for leaders. I have seen more than one great leader fail (and fall) when they ask for feedback, then refuse to listen to it because it doesn't come in the format they prefer (carefully phrased, positive, uplifting). If you ask for feedback, you have to sift through the feedback, in whatever form it comes. Or - as you and Fiona have pointed out - you miss valuable good stuff. Feedback is information. The emotions are also information. It's all information to be sifted and sorted.<br><br>Yes, the persons delivering feedback can influence how their feedback is received. But when you stand up and ask for it, you really don't get to rail at those who give it to you, unvarnished. Especially when you are the one in the position of power and authority, the leader.

June 23, 2010 - 4:55pm
Anonymous's picture

Lori, thanks for your comments. Sadly, we have both seen this sort of situation too often -- managers who want to receive requested feedback only when it is, as you described, carefully phrased, positive and uplifting. Your point about the importance of the emotion in the feedback is also key. The very fact that someone is upset is data, and data that the leader should be interested in. Actually, feedback should be taken in and treated seriously even if it hasn't been explicitly requested by the person in charge. As you point out, that's the person who has the power and authority. ~Naomi

June 23, 2010 - 5:00pm
Anonymous's picture

The CIO should also be watchful for what ISN'T said. Sometimes NO feedback is very telling. I recently worked for a company with a very toxic, negative working environment. The employees couldn't provide any positive feedback about the company, and they wouldn't provide negative feedback. People had a way of "disappearing" without any warning. (I said they were being banished "to the cornfield" a la Twilight Zone). Feedback is important, as you stated so well in your suggested email messge.

June 24, 2010 - 5:07am
Anonymous's picture

Rose, that's a particularly valuable comment -- that the CIO should be aware of what's not being said. I think some people in leadership positions confuse no feedback with "all is well," when (as your experience demonstrates) it could mean just the opposite. All the more reason why a CIO (or other leader) should proactively solicit feedback and treat all of it as valuable information, whether positive, negative or simply useful observations. ~Naomi

June 24, 2010 - 5:15am

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