Protecting Your Source: How to Handle Critical Feedback While Maintaining Trust


I was reminded the other day of an important lesson that most leaders learn the hard way. The reason it is learned the hard way is that it is not typically taught in leadership programs, and the first time it is an issue for a leader it is usually handled badly.

Here is the scenario: A person comes to you with information that is important for you to know, however they are nervous about telling you about it because it would impact them negatively if it became known that they were the source of the information.

Now, let me say first of all that we are going to make an assumptions here that the information being shared is not self serving to either party. In other words, neither of you is exploiting a situation that will hurt another person for your own personal gain. This is critical, because to use the information for personal gain and/or to hurt another individual would be unethical.

Alright, now with that assumption handled, the question is: What to do next? The challenge is that you know information that is not really actionable without violating the trust of your source.

Many leaders, when faced with this challenge, plow forward and address the issue directly. Although they may not mean to violate the trust of their source, that is exactly what they do. The rationalization here is that it is the ‘right’ thing to do, and it is in everybody’s best interest – at least in the long run. However, that is cold consolation to your source who will be unlikely to bring information to your attention in the future. In addition, others will watch the situation unfold and the effect that this has on the person who came to you with information in confidence, and will also be unlikely to share sensitive information with you in the future.

You see the problem don’t you? Leaders want to take action when a problem needs to be addressed, however in taking action you create a situation that alienates you from important insights as to what is happening in your group.

I think it was in KIng Lear that the King disguises himself the night before a big battle to walk amongst his troops to find out his soldiers really are thinking. He laments that it is hard to get good information when you are King. He was right. Too many leaders are isolated and the information they receive is tainted by a fear of how it might be used, and who might find out.
The solution to the dilemma the leader faces is simple in concept, but more difficult to execute. The difficulty is that it takes patience on the part of the leader, a trait that most leaders lack. Their preference is for action, and this is a huge asset in many situations – but not in this case.

The solution is that you must seek to ‘independently verify’ the information that has been shared with you. This may take some thought into who you need to talk to and what questions you need to ask.

While this is the more difficult path, you will be more likely to uncover the truth and to develop relationships of trust with those individuals who have insight that is important to you.

February 1, 2013 / By