How leaders are silencing their people

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This article was co-authored by Megan Reitz and John Higgins of Ashridge Executive Education.

How confident are you that your team are telling you the things you really need to hear?  

If there was serious malpractice going on in the business, would employees speak up or would they remain silent?

Are people on the front line who know how the business really works openly sharing their ideas about how to improve your offering to customers?

Recent research from Ashridge Executive Education suggests the answer to all the above is almost certainly no.

The findings of a two year research study show that most leaders are blind to the fact of just how difficult it is for others to speak up to them – and as a result are missing out on vital intelligence which could affect their company’s success or even survival.

Recent corporate scandals have graphically illustrated the point.  In the last few weeks alone, Barclays has plunged itself into controversy over attempts by the CEO to find out the identity of a whistle-blower, while Shell is under scrutiny regarding what employees and its CEO knew of payments to a convicted money-launderer in Nigeria.

Last year’s emissions scandal at VW and revelations of doping at the IAAF are other prime examples of employees knowing what was happening, but choosing not to speak up because they felt the personal risk was too high.

How can these organisations have failed to know what was going on between their own walls?  

The research report, 'Being Silenced and Silencing Others:  Developing the capacity to speak truth to power' [PDF] points out that what organisations are failing to recognise is that truth and power are inextricably linked.

No matter how approachable leaders try to be, employees will always monitor what they say and only disclose what they think is ‘safe’ or politically acceptable.

Well-meaning initiatives like leadership lunches, or phrases like ‘my door is always open’, are never going to cut it when it comes to encouraging people to have a voice.

Encouraging people to speak up is a complex balancing act, which requires leaders to have a sophisticated understanding of the impact power differences have on what can be spoken and what is heard.

“Silence is a dangerous thing for any organisation and any leader,” says report co-author Megan Reitz.

“If people cannot speak up to you, then you will be unaware of issues which could bring your team, your targets and even your organisation to its knees.

Equally, if your employees are full of ideas about how you can do a better job for the customer, or get a better deal from a supplier, you need to know, because if you don’t tap into this collective intelligence, your competitor will.

Of course all this has profound implications for HR, who need to ensure that the organisational culture is not inhibiting employee’s willingness to voice their views.

The research identifies four types of organisational culture – directive, adjudicated, empowering and dialogic – all of which have implications for how easy it is for people to speak up and for what leaders need to do if they want to facilitate effective dialogue.

Well-meaning initiatives like leadership lunches, or phrases like ‘my door is always open’, are never going to cut it when it comes to encouraging people to have a voice.

None of these ‘truth to power’ cultures are right or wrong.

Each presents its own challenges and opportunities. The key for HR is to understand the cultural backdrop they are working in and to help leaders develop the subtle skills to negotiate it effectively.

HR also needs to hold a mirror up to itself and understand that the labels people attach to the profession (‘management’, ‘enforcer of rules’, ‘person who could fire me’) may in themselves be inhibiting people from speaking up to them.

The research, which is based on interviews with 60 senior executives as well as in-depth company case studies, provides an insight into how these labels, together with other factors, influence whether people speak up or stay silent.

It identifies five key issues which employees will take into account before deciding to put their heads above the parapet – namely personal conviction, risk awareness, political awareness, social awareness and judgement (link to later article).

Organisations who learn to get to grips with these subtle dynamics will reap the benefits in terms of more open, honest cultures where important issues are outed, rather than swept under the carpet.

The time is particularly relevant now, at a time when the debate about our post-truth society is raging.

“When dominant leaders begin to see themselves as unquestionably right – and when those around them feel they can only say what is safe to say, then we have a perfect storm in which leaders who are disconnected from the day-to-day can persuade others that their perspective of the world is reality,” says Megan Reitz.

About Megan Reitz

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