Why did nobody say? Getting others to speak out.

Why don’t people speak out? In this and an accompanying post I will cover the two issues

  1. How can I help others speak out and use their perspectives?
  2. How can I find ways to raise concerns?

I have three friends or clients all currently in a similar situation. They are smart, qualified, gifted people and can see ways to save their companies money and improve the way people work. They can make a contribution that will change something in a positive way. The type of asset anybody would want surely? Yet none of them feel able to say what they think to their bosses.

All three work in cultures where the espoused culture is one where people are encouraged to speak their views — but people rarely do. The cheap shot is that anybody who says that the ideas of the ‘great and good’ (the leadership triumvirate usually) are wrong, inaccurate or just taking people in the wrong direction are classified as ‘not team players’. All have cultures where faults are quietly discussed in hushed voices in corridors, not openly in rooms. There the talk is positive about triumphs and wonderful things.  Why would people bother to take the personal risk of speaking out when senior management prefers to act like they are in a Disney film?                    

A key piece of leadership is breaking this mould. ‘Psychological safety’ is so important — the atmosphere where people can speak out freely, where the minority voice is heard and difference is a strength. Easy to talk about. Hard to create.

I work with many senior leaders. I tell them the truth. That’s what I do. They sometimes don’t like it but that is part of the deal. My role is not to be a cheerleader for their egos but to help them be as good as they can. One of the things they could collectively get better at would be encouraging people to speak up. “My door is always open” would be a typical refrain and of course they cannot see the invisible cloak of power they wield.  Yet highly capable, highly educated, intelligent people don’t completely divulge the truth to them, leaving them with an incomplete and inaccurate view of what is going on.

How can this cycle be broken? It requires an effort from both directions.

Need to open things up more?

If you are a senior manager and need to open more channels of communication consider these, which are based on some splendid recent research done by Ashridge Business School

  1. What is your reputation for being willing to listen to other viewpoints — and change your own mind? Are you sure? Many people over-estimate their reputation here — citing the evidence of one person with whom they have a close relationship, who tells them the truth, whilst ignoring the contrary evidence and those that censor or say nothing when they are around. Do you consciously and deliberately do all you can to find people’s views and give them the opportunity to speak freely with you? Can you empathise with how somebody who is very different to you may find it difficult to take a risk and speak up? Can you understand when you are not getting the true version of people on the floor but a censored version from a middle manager?
  2. Do you understand how your position and the unspoken rules of the organisation and the history affect how people will speak to you?                                   
  3. Do you know how to encourage people to speak up, especially now you have position power behind you?
  4. Have you got a real and genuine desire to obtain viewpoints from people? Often that means wearing a degree of vulnerability and not pretending you know everything — are you happy to do that? Do you get defensive if people suggest some of senior management’s ideas are not great?
  5. What informal processes do you have in place to give people the opportunity to speak with you? Formal processes are often immersed in ‘organisational rules’. Informal processes often work better. One of my clients talks about the way to discuss things with his CEO are G&T moments. Do you provide G&T moments (alcohol not necessary!) for your people?

Why employ smart people at all levels and then not listen to them or take in their perspectives? All of us sometimes find it hard to challenge those in authority in some instances or at least challenge some of their thinking, ideas or current practices. There seem to be both human and business benefits to creating the safety that enables more of these real conversations to take place. My colleagues who feel stifled are much less satisfied than they should be, yet they really want to do a great job. Those at the top who do not create these conditions are probably managing some parts of their business, but not leading. Ask more and really listen more to hear what people have to really say beyond their words. It will benefit everybody and cost nothing!

Look out for a further post covering how you can help yourself speak out more.

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