Johnson didn't tell either of his bosses--owner Jeannie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka--before announcing his decision to reporters 90 minutes before the Lakers' last game of the season. The surprise move forced a team statement at halftime thanking the Hall-of-Famer for his service.
I remember thinking at the time, "How strange. Something's up." Johnson's explanation, offered while fighting back tears, didn't seem like the full story. Johnson told reporters: ""I want to go back to having fun. I want to go back to being who I was before taking on this job."
Understandable, as Johnson is a fabulously successful entrepreneur and is known to love mentoring younger players (which he wanted to do without fear of tampering accusations). But he also said this: "I didn't like the backstabbing, the whispering. I don't like that. I don't like a lot of things that went on that didn't have to go on."
Bleacher Report writer Ric Bucher may have connected the dots with a story he broke on Colin Cowherd's show The Herd on Wednesday (a story yet to be officially confirmed).
Bucher reported that Pelinka sent an email criticizing Johnson's performance as president to Buss, and that Johnson was accidentally copied on those emails.
Just as bad, Buss offered no rebuttal in the reported email chain. Now, the abruptness of Johnson's departure makes more sense. But the behavior surrounding him doesn't.
Even if this story is never officially confirmed by the three people involved, I've seen this backstabbing behavior play out many times in my corporate life.
Here's why this is the most toxic of toxic behaviors.
It's hard to imagine anything less courageous than going to someone's boss with negative feedback about that person without at least first discussing it with that person. To say it undermines trust is an understatement. To say it's weak is a disservice to those too weak to protect themselves. To say it's despicable and culture-rotting is an injustice to people stealing money from the Salvation Army donation jar at work.
It obliterates trust. It encourages unhelpful reciprocation, should the "tattled on" find out. It causes people to quit--people like Magic Johnson.
It also speaks to a broader issue: the need to be courageous in giving feedback. I've witnessed too many instances of "passing the trash," when a boss, rather than investing and working with an employee performing below par, would shuttle the person over to another department without mentioning any of their shortcomings. Doing this sets everyone up to fail.
I've seen this exact Lakers scenario, where a co-worker disses another co-worker to the boss, and the boss, instead of shutting it down, validates it.
I've seen bosses too timid to give their employees important feedback. As a result, the employee never makes it at the company and is forced out five years later, wasting time they could have been using to pursue something better.
In many cases, the feedback you choose not to give directly means messing with someone's life.
If you're the one with feedback to give, do the right thing: Feed it directly back to that person. If you're a boss, don't allow the end-around behavior to happen. Ask the would-be informant if they've discussed the grievances with the person in question first. Then let them know that their abusive reporting isn't welcome.
I'm not saying you don't need to know about peoples' issues in your department. Rather, you need to encourage respectful ways for your employees to communicate such issues. It starts with giving feedback to the individual, and letting that person know if there's a compelling reason to continue up the chain.
Feedback is a gift. Put a bow of honesty, integrity, and courage on top.