What to do when the front-line employee is smarter than the boss
Here is the situation that an Executive Director recently explained to me: They had hired their first-ever Program Director. Many of the staff who used to report to the Executive Director now reported to the person in the new role. The issue was that one person kept trying to make an “end run” around their new boss and take up issues with the old boss, the Executive Director. To make matters more complicated, the Executive Director agreed with what this person was thinking and disagreed with the new Program Director on the biggest issue of the day. So, what do you do in this situation if you are the big boss and you actually agree with the front-line person who has come directly to you?
The answer is simple: You tell the front-line person to go take it up with their boss. The words are simple: “Hey Jake, you need to take this up with Mary. She is your boss now, and she is the one you go to with something like this.”
Why is this the right answer?
- One of your main roles as a leader is to support the authority of the other leaders who report to you.
- You chose Mary for the job because you trust her judgment and you will not second guess her.
- Your goal is to develop Mary to get better and better at her job, not to manage her staff for her or override her authority. You want to develop your skills in your own role, not take back hers.
- Just because you agree with the front-liner doesn’t mean you are necessarily right. Mary’s way might turn out better then you imagine and she might understand the situation better than you do.
In the end, if you know or feel strongly that the front-liner’s point is important and their boss is missing it, you need to take it up with Mary. You still give the front-liner the same answer (“talk to Mary”) and you take the issue up privately with Mary. It is okay to have sources and use them to provide Mary with feedback as long as you don’t undermine her authority in the process. The only time you should take action based on feedback from your direct report’s staff is when dangerous, immoral, or illegal activities are brought to your attention. Otherwise the answer should always be “talk to Mary.”
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