Transparency Not Always So Clear

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By Thomas Daley

As often happens, what seemed to be occurring was not perceived the same way by all involved.  Here was a manager, supporting one employee to grow and develop, while resentment was building within another.

The Barbs of Transparency
One local department of a global mining company decided to implement a peer mentoring pilot.  Their intention was to see if this concept would work within this company’s culture, and to try some strategies for implementation before proposing the concept as something the organization might want to consider.  It was one of those ‘off-the-corner-of-the-desk’ projects with no funds attached and no promise of anything further.

To initiate the program, the local manager and an administrative assistant—let’s call her Barb—started researching the topic and brought up the concept at staff meetings to test their ideas and thinking with their immediate team before broadening out to the rest of the local office.  The team members responded with enthusiasm for the concept and were very encouraging about Barb taking the initiative to research and plan the implementation of this project, much of which she was doing on her own time.

Things progressed.  The theoretical foundation for the project was articulated, mentoring techniques identified, and an outline of the process and a training plan for mentors was established.

This was all the more impressive as Barb, who did most of the work, had no real qualifications or experience with developing such a project.  The whole team had watched this young person take hold of the project and grow in a very impressive manner.  This growth was exemplified when she made a trial presentation to the team before taking the presentation to the senior leaders in the local office.  The manager expressed her support and approval of the work that Barb had done.

All seemed to be going well. In fact, the project was approved by the senior leaders, who naturally asked Barb to take the lead on the project.  This was a real coup for Barb.

So what’s the down side?

The Downside of Another’s Up
There were two administrative assistants in the office, and they shared the workload for the team.  What the manager had overlooked was the reaction and growing discontent of the second administrative assistant, who we’ll call Sharon.  At the beginning, Sharon was not at all interested in the mentoring project and expressed skepticism that it would even get off the ground.  As she watched Barb doing more work and becoming more and more excited about the project, she was starting to feel left out.

At one point, Sharon had asked Barb if there was something she might do.  Barb—thoroughly immersed in the project—had thanked her and said that everything was well in-hand, as it was.

Although the manager was unaware of this conversation, the attitude shift that Sharon was exhibiting was becoming noticeable.  She had started to make comments about the regular work of the administrative assistants falling more to her when the project was being discussed at team meetings.  When the manager met with Sharon about how she was feeling about the project, Sharon expressed her frustration with being shut out and Barb being favoured.

Transparency Not Always Perceived as Such
What this scenario drives home is that apparent transparency is not always interpreted by all as true transparency.  This situation could not have been more transparent in the way that it was initiated or managed throughout.  Instead, the shift occurred in the perception of one of the players.  In spite of everyone else being on board and pleased with the way the project was taking shape, there was one who viewed the process as being unfair.

We must remember that we are naturally selective in what we remember and how we view the world.  This selectivity requires extreme diligence on the part of leaders, to the point of tracking on an individual basis how each person feels about a situation, to avoid any perception of favouritism.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to remember that a person’s feeling about a situation will change over time—and the benefits of direct dialogue.

Favouritism Vs. Fairness
Must everything be the same for everyone to be fair?  What about the situation where a manager has a high potential employee they want to develop?  It could be perceived as favouritism for that individual to be given stretch assignments and other development opportunities when not everyone has the same opportunities.

A manager has the prerogative and even the expectation of making sure that the work of the organization is done in the best way possible, and this might occasionally require some people getting more opportunities than others. It’s a reality that leaders all face.

Simple Steps Forward
In the face of this reality there are some steps that leaders can take. This list is not exhaustive, yet taking these steps will improve morale and decrease the perception of favouritism.  These include:

  • Holding regular performance meetings with all employees, using a developmental approach;
  • Establishing clear expectations on what is required to be considered for any developmental opportunities; and
  • Determining steps and marking progress toward readiness for developmental opportunities.

This may seem like extra work, as performance management and employee development does not always seem to be the top priority.  Yet, if a leader’s role is not to develop others, what is it?

Thomas Daley is a senior consultant with LOGAN HR, a consulting firm specializing in career transition (outplacement), coaching, compensation, and performance management. 

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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