Managing Up, Retention

Being the Shit Shield For Your Team: How Much To Tell Your Subordinates

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I used to joke with my team that part of my job was to serve as the ‘shit shield’ for the team. My subordinates did the ‘actual work’; my job was to provide cover from all the random shit that would rain down from on high.

Oddly enough, this really was how I thought of my job. It emerged naturally from my understanding of ‘the manager’s job’ — which was to increase the output of the team; one way that job happens is by protecting the output of the team from the natural randomness that occurs in any functioning organisation.

(And of course, by ‘natural randomness’ I mean protecting my subordinates from my boss).

I don’t mean to say that my boss was particularly bad. I mean to say that his short-term priorities occasionally did not match up with the short-term priorities of some of my subordinates — and that it was my job to act as a translation layer between the two. This isn’t anything controversial, I don’t think: if you’ve been a manager for any amount of time, you’re probably used to the notion of acting as a go-between. You are privy to some discussions that shouldn’t be made available to your subordinates, and sometimes you decide against telling them things because you know it’ll cause unnecessary worry, plus the odds of the thing being discussed actually happening are so low so as not to be worth talking about.

(Real example: my boss once floated the idea of shutting down the office and moving everything to Taiwan. I never told my team because it would mean the loss of their jobs; more importantly, I thought my boss was just testing an extreme idea — and indeed that was the case).

So here’s the tricky question. You want to protect your team from some of the rubbish that happens in the rest of your organisation. Occasionally this involves withholding unimportant (or sensitive!) information from your subordinates. Occasionally it involves stepping above and beyond to fix some inter-departmental issue. But teamwork is built on trust, and withholding information may lead to your subordinates distrusting you.

Which leads us to ask: how much withholding is too much? Where is the line drawn?

The Two Extremes

To discuss this issue more concretely, let’s consider the two bad scenarios that are the result of messing this up.

On one end, you tell your team too much. You willingly reveal sensitive information, you tell them that a competitor has made a move to consolidate in your space, and that you’re expecting some tough months ahead. You tell them your worries about cashflow that you overheard Bill from accounting discuss the other day with the founders. You tell them about the inter-departmental struggle that’s happening behind the scenes, because Joy from sales wants product to prostrate themselves at the altar of rosy client promises.

Interestingly enough, I don’t think this as bad as the other extreme. Telling your team too much is a better mistake to make than telling your team too little — at the very least, the former scenario enables trust, while the latter extreme nearly always results in a breakdown of trust. Losing the trust of your team is a really difficult situation to recover from, so it’s probably a good idea that you don’t ever fall into this trap.

Ben Horowitz writes about this exact issue in his book for CEOs, The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

As a young CEO, I felt the pressure—the pressure of employees depending on me, the pressure of not really knowing what I was doing, the pressure of being responsible for tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. As a consequence of this pressure, I took losses extremely hard. If we failed to win a customer or slipped a date or shipped a product that wasn’t quite right, it weighed heavily on me. I thought that I would make the problem worse by transferring that burden to my employees. Instead, I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.

I realized my error during a conversation with my brother in-law, Cartheu. At the time, Cartheu worked for AT&T as a telephone lineman (he is one of those guys who climb the poles). I had just met a senior executive at AT&T, whom I’ll call Fred, and I was excited to find out if Cartheu knew him. Cartheu said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.” At that moment, I knew that “that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.

In my mind, I was keeping everyone in high spirits by accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative. But my team knew that reality was more nuanced than I was describing it. And not only did they see for themselves the world wasn’t as rosy as I was describing it; they still had to listen to me blowing sunshine up their butts at every company meeting.

Does this mean that oversharing is always good? Well .. no, of course not! Say that you tell your subordinates about the inter-departmental struggle that’s happening at your level, where Joy from sales wants product to do everything that’s asked of them. And let’s say that you complain bitterly to your team, and you tell them of the latest developments of your fight at every staff meeting. This is most likely going to galvanise your team against sales. While Joy’s constant meddling isn’t good for your team’s output (which, I should point out, is necessary to your company’s continued success), galvanising your entire team to be up in arms against client requests from sales is a surefire way to tank your team’s contribution to the business. It is a terrible, terrible thing to do.

The other extreme is far worse, of course. If you withhold too much information from your team, the inevitable result is that your subordinates will begin to distrust you. This affects your day-to-day job in all sorts of meaningfully bad ways. For example, one of your jobs as manager is to motivate your team. This is nearly impossible to do with subordinates who don’t trust you — and why should they? You’ve kept all sorts of important things from them, which makes them double-guess nearly everything you say.

To sort of understand what this looks like, a friend of mine once told me that he had started to mistrust his manager after months of nasty surprises  — that is, event after event where the manager had either failed to communicate upcoming organisational changes with the rest of the team, or had thrown subordinates under the bus during after-action reviews.

“I didn’t think he was looking out for me,” my friend said, “I’ve begun to ignore nearly everything he tells me during our one-on-ones.” This story didn’t have a happy ending: my friend left the company less than a quarter later.

A Guiding Principle

Can we come up with a guiding principle for this question? I think we can: over the past few years I’ve adopted a general rule that’s served me well. The notion again stems from the Manager’s Job, and it is essentially this: default to telling your team as much as possible, and only refrain from telling if the act of doing so will affect their output.

So, as an example, this rule prevents you from telling your team about the political fight with Joy from sales. You are allowed to give your team the foggiest outline of the fight (e.g. “there’s some shenanigans going on with sales right now, but I’m taking care of it”) but you shouldn’t go so far as to give them the blow-by-blow, because such gossip might destroy their motivation to work with Joy’s org.

Similarly, this rule means that I am not allowed to tell my subordinates about my boss’s more extreme ideas — for instance, anything that might affect them and impact their output, but isn’t likely to happen in the short term.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t an exact science — occasionally, you will stray into telling your subordinates things that you shouldn’t. In such cases, take the time to note the exception to the rule, which should be unique to your specific organisation as well as to your specific management style. But my principle takes the side of ‘telling’ by default because I believe that my team needs to trust me in order for me to act as an effective steward of their output. Defaulting to telling helps me keep that trust.

There is, of course, a corollary to this rule: if you have a piece of information that you think might negatively affect your team’s performance, then take extra care in how you deliver that message. If you’re not good at this, proactively reach out to fellow managers (or loved ones!) to rehearse with them. This isn’t a joke! Even the act of going through the motions with a trusted advisor or confidante does wonders for your eventual delivery of such news. I’ve gone to the extreme of rehearsing an entire briefing with a peer-manager; even going so far as to simulate questions and how I would answer them.

The manager’s job is to increase the output of the team, and I hope this post makes it clear that this philosophy extends to everything that you do. Acting as the shit shield for your team is a natural consequence of the manager’s job. And when you do so, telling your team the truth as often as is possible is necessary to protect their trust in you.

I’m hopeful that this general principle would be as useful to you as it has been for me. Ultimately, a good manager is someone who has to balance between the needs of the broader business and the goals of the few. This is not an easy job, but then it’s why management is so important in the first place. Good luck.