If your intuition is that what you’re doing —whatever it may be —is making someone upset, why don’t you simply ask:
Is what I am doing making you upset?
I recently asked this question to one of my direct reports who is a manager within the company. I had previously set up meetings with their team members (without the manager present) in hopes of establishing personal relationships with them —a goal of mine is to be accessible to the whole organization. The manager knew about the meetings and was, at least initially, all right with the idea. My intention was to create trust and demonstrate that I could hear difficult feedback from these individuals —even if it was about their “manager”—and maintain confidentiality. I also wanted to be cognizant of the amount of the meetings the “manager” already had and not add to that list.
As time went by, however, I could tell that the meetings were becoming a sore spot in my relationship with this manager. In fact, their initial “silence as acceptance” posture appeared to be migrating to “passive annoyance.” So before it became “passive aggressive” I went ahead and asked: Are these meetings I’m having with your team making you upset?
A long pause ensued.
After long consideration, the answer was yes. They understood the relational element —even appreciated it —but they felt that their absence was encouraging unhealthy dynamics, like gossip, to exist.
Hearing this feedback affirmed my intuition that something was amiss. Frankly, “gossip” was not the problem that I feared, nor was it a problem in the current meeting structure. The problem I realized was developing, though, was role confusion. For the closer I became to this team, the more willing they would be to come to me when they have an issue. By changing course, and inviting the manager back into the meeting, I could still communicate that I am always accessible, but their first point of contact is always their manager.
The points here are simple:
Have direct conversations with those you lead, and be willing to ask the uncomfortable question of whether what you are doing is upsetting them.
If the answer is yes, and there is merit to that concern, listen to the feedback and change course as necessary.
As I learned, this not only alleviates potential conflict or angst, but also promotes a healthier culture for everyone.