There is a saying in England that I cannot find a source for, but goes something like this:
"Wherever the Queen visits, it smells like wet paint."
The point being that a visit from the Queen is such a big occasion, that everyone works hard to make the best possible impression in advance of her visit, including giving all of the walls a fresh coat of paint.
It is a really good expression that can also be applied to any leader: if everyone is striving to give you the best possible impression of things, how do you see things for how they actually are?
A leader needs to learn to spot the subtle clues, the body language, the tells, anything that will allow them to see through the BS that is being presented to them. As a leader, I want to receive the facts, no matter how brutal. As I leader, I also know that people often embellish with their own opinions, or deliberately obfuscate when they want to hide some bad news.
So how do you, as a leader, tell them apart? That will be the topic for today’s podcast.
I tend to group reportees into three categories:
A leader needs to encourage category 3 types in the team: just give me the facts, as clearly and concisely as possible. Options and opinions are also of course welcomed, but start with the facts, otherwise I am going to have to parse these myself and that takes time and effort, and more importantly I might miss something or otherwise get it wrong.
A leader is not omniscient, instead they are trusting the team to be their eyes and ears across multiple topics.
Getting to the facts is effectively cutting through the BS. Human beings are not robots, so will typically colour facts with their own interpretations and opinions so it is important for a leader to be able to tell them apart.
If a reportee is continually reporting fiction rather than fact, the leader should ask themselves why that person feels compelled to do so?
Perhaps they want to make themselves look good, perhaps they want to make a rival look bad, or perhaps they are simply afraid to report the facts in case there are any implications for them.
As a leader, you need to ensure that your teams feel confident in presenting the honest facts in a judgement-free environment, and it is your job to set that example.
Facts can be judged and reviewed, but not the messenger. If a leader makes the mistake of taking punitive measures against a messenger, or rewarding those who always report success, then they will simply encourage people to tell them what they want to hear, resulting in a massive blind spot.
That is a terrible mistake for a leader to make, but it does happen, I have seen it with my own eyes and the whole team suffers as a result.
Beware of wet paint smells. To a leader, wet paint actually smells like BS, and should act as a major red flag.
There are many forms of obfuscation from reportees, some are more obvious than others. Let’s start by looking at some of the obvious examples:
That is the amateur-hour stuff, but once you get to pro-level obfuscation your judgement as a leader will really be put to the test! Here are some examples of ninja-level obfuscation:
All of these techniques, and more, add to the "fog of war" of leadership, and a leader needs to be able to see a path through that fog to lead the team through it.
A healthy team has none of these behaviours, and unhealthy team has all of them and is deeply political.
Now, you can see why the type 3 "straight talkers" are so important to your team, and your mental health, and you should surround yourself with these guys and promote them to senior roles.
Concise, direct, communication is the end goal for everyone.
Without clear information, you cannot make clear decisions. You might miss some important fact that was hidden from you, because your team were too busy covering everything in brilliant white paint for you. Unless you are royalty, that is not only unnecessary but it is downright dangerous.
Beware of wet paint smells.
Lets recap what we have covered today:
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.
Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!
 : My original blog post on this topic (2017): https://techleader.pro/a/509-Beware-of-wet-paint-smells
File details: 15.6 MB MP3, 10 mins 49 secs duration.
Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via www.epidemicsound.com
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