Standing in a River with Fish: a lesson in people management

What it means to stand in a river with fish

Picture yourself standing in a shallow river on a warm spring day. You have a clear view of the mountains and the surrounding landscape. It’s very quiet; all you can hear is soft splashes.

Why information doesn’t break the surface

To understand the silence above the surface, we have to look inside the thought processes of the managers and their employees.

Employees anticipating a negative reaction

If an employee believes their manager will react defensively to critical feedback, they will hesitate to provide any. You’ve probably filtered what you want to say at some point in your career because you didn’t want to complicate your relationship with your supervisor, or even lose your job. And by cutting off this source of feedback, a manager might never be confronted with their own shortcomings and therefore never improve.

Managers not acknowledging the context

It can be difficult for managers to judge how serious an issue is when they just hear about it second-hand, which can lead them to ignore important concerns. Not all managers account for the fact that it takes time for employees to build up enough conviction to raise the alarm. So by the time the information reaches the management level, it can already be at a boiling point and should be taken seriously.

Improving communication between managers and employees

Certainly we can all think of situations in which it is a good thing to have a filter; otherwise we would be a lot more conflict in the workplace. I’m definitely not recommending cursing out your boss or invading your employee’s privacy. But there are some best practices to make sure the fish have a voice.

Tip for managers: dive into the water

In the extreme, the fastest way to understand what is going on with your team is to take a swim. Spending some time doing the work alongside your direct reports, shadowing their work and auditing how they spend their time, will give you a better understanding of what they do and where the bottlenecks are. However, you won’t actually build trust and respect until you take the final step of actually addressing the concerns you identified.

  1. Incorporate questions into your 1:1s: investor and entrepreneur Ben Horowitz writes about the power of questions in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Being approachable and having an open door policy is fine, but it’s not enough. You need to solicit that information and act on what you find in order to support your team. To get started, check out a list of my favorite check-in questions.
  2. Send out regular surveys: at my last two companies I set up automated Google Forms that I called the “check and reflect,” which asked 3 questions: What went well for you in your role this week? What challenges or bottlenecks did you face? What would you like to improve next week? I like sending this out in an asynchronous medium because it gives your direct-reports time to give thoughtful answers. I’ve included instructions on how to set this up and automate the process using Google App Scripts. This doesn’t replace performance feedback, which is a topic for another article.
  3. Institute cross-department interviews: sometimes employees feel more comfortable opening up to someone who they don’t report to. It can be a chance to share insights and their frustrations openly, without having to consider hurting your feelings or enduring a negative reaction. The purpose of this meeting is to collect their valuable insights, but be sure to allow them to keep things off-the-record if they prefer that some information not be shared with their manager.

Tip for employees: making a splash

Sharing concerns and critical feedback to someone in a position of power is a very daunting and intimidating task. But, even though it can be uncomfortable, if you want the problems you are seeing to get better, it’s important to recognize the agency you have to make things happen. Sometimes you have to jump out of the water to get noticed.

  1. Present it differently: if you’ve tried sharing some concerns with your manager, but had no luck, make sure you reflect on the method you used to communicate. Your manager is more likely to see the problem if you show them compelling data, specific examples, or an action plan. Putting effort into how you present the problem can help your manager get on board faster.
  2. Present it often: if you think back to what we talked about with “not acknowledging the context” you might notice that some managers use the frequency that they hear about a problem as a shortcut for understanding its severity. Don’t assume that sharing something once is always enough to prompt urgency; sometimes you have to be a squeaky wheel to see results.
  3. Do something about it: lastly, after making explicit attempts at using the first two tips, if you do not see any noticeable change, then it might be time to take matters into your own hands. Try putting your proposal to the test, seeking guidance from a different leader at the organization, or even elevating to your boss’s boss when absolutely necessary. Heck, you might even have to quit.

Swimming forward

I find workplace dynamics to be so fascinating because, despite hundreds of books and articles on the subjects, most people don’t like their managers. The workplace is full of wasted time and resources, but we can start to find a way to swim forward by reflecting on the way we communicate with one another.



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Amanda Silver

Amanda Silver

Workplace researcher and storyteller; passionate about using operations to improve jobs. Subscribe to Workable for news on changing work: