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Leading by example, straight off a cliff…

Headline by Franke James, MFA.; Man with stitched mouth illustration ©istockphoto.com/MirekP

Dear Office-Politics,

I am second in command (transitioning soon to first in command) of a tight-knit team that excels at our jobs. We focus on collaboration and high-quality output, and communication is essential. I am generally known as an individual that will accept nothing less than excellence, and most of the team members appreciate that. However, one junior level member recently completed a project at home (out of sight) and went to another office for review, specifically asking the other person to not mention that he had talked with them. That person, recognizing the potential for catastrophe, told me immediately, but asked me to keep it confidential.

I am relatively new at a leadership role, and so the first thing I did was talk to my immediate supervisor to ask for his opinion. I outlined the situation as I have told it here, including the sub-par project for review and expressed to my supervisor that the other office person did not want to be involved.

The situation was worse that I recognized, and my supervisor immediately turned around and informed the office leader. Now the junior level member is in a lot of trouble (potentially getting fired) and the other office member (my coworker) is extremely angry with me for “betraying confidences and getting him involved.” The situation has evolved out of my control and no matter how much I have argued it, they are going to proceed by outing the other office person.

I am feeling really lousy and keep asking myself what I could have done differently to help the situation. I also keep wondering if I have crossed the line into office back-stabber, snake, or tattle-tale. Where are the fine lines between doing the right thing and tattling on someone? What could I have done differently in this situation? It was not something I could let pass, but I had no idea it would get to the level it has…

Leading by example, straight off a cliff…


marty seldman.jpg
joshua seldman

Dear Leading by example,

Thank you for your letter because it illustrates a difficult leadership issue that is not often discussed. I appreciate your conflict regarding loyalty to a person versus loyalty to the organization. First of all I would try rid yourself of your concern that you are turning into a backstabber or tattle tale. You seem to have had positive intentions at every stage of this episode and tried to be fair to all sides. There are some things that you might have done better and discussing this may give you some guidelines for future situations like this.

The key moment of truth in these situations, i.e. when someone approaches you with “confidential” information, is to clarify expectations very early in the conversation. The reality is that if you have a leadership position in an organization you cannot agree to carte blanche confidentiality before you know what you are going to hear. If someone tells you about sexual harassment, ethical issues or anything that might put the company’s resources or reputation at risk, you are required to do something about this information.

Of course you can be organizationally savvy about the timing, setting, words you use, and who you share it with but some information you are obliged to not just “sit on”. You can assure someone that you will pursue all options to surface the information without involving them, but it is impossible to know in advance if you can completely leave them out of it.

In most cases this works out well. Often you can surface the information and keep confidentiality and when you can’t people will often appreciate the effort you made and understand that the organizations overall goals take precedent.

So to summarize you have a “window” to manage and set expectations regarding confidentiality early in the conversation. I hope that this makes you feel better about what happened and confident that you can handle these situations in your new management role.



Marty Seldman, Ph.D. and Joshua Seldman
Co-authors, Executive Stamina

cover of Executive StaminaMarty Seldman, Ph.D. and Joshua Seldman, are Co-authors of Executive Stamina: How to optimize time, energy and productivity to achieve peak performance. In Executive Stamina, you’ll learn all the skills, techniques, and positive practices needed to create a sustainable path to achieve your full career potential. Renowned executive coach Marty Seldman and endurance coach Joshua Seldman will introduce you to the revolutionary training system they’ve used with great success on top executives and endurance athletes. You’ll find hundreds of tips and tools that will help you maximize your career potential, while maintaining your health, staying in touch with your values, and avoiding costly tradeoffs in your personal life.

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