Leaders need to stop silencing their people

Following comments in Sue Gray’s ‘Partygate’ report about employees not speaking up, John Higgins and Megan Reitz explain what organisations can do to ensure their workers are heard

What is playing out in our public, political world is an extreme example of a common social trope which can be seen in slightly moderated form in organisational life. Those at the top of the tree see themselves to be above the rules that everyone else is being asked to follow – an attitude that can only be sustained when there is no feedback about the consequences of being out of touch, which any half-decent leader would want to do something about. 

Our research has shown that leaders have an across-the-board tendency to think they are more in touch than they actually are; that their way of seeing the world is the only way, the right way of seeing it. And they genuinely believe that people around them are telling it like it is.

Our study into speaking truth to power also confirms that when an organisation hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, someone always knows – they just weren’t being listened to or had given up in the face of organisational indifference, bluster, or processes not designed with them in mind.

Sue Gray’s damning report into ‘Partygate’ highlights failures of leadership and judgement – but points in particular to what might be described as leadership deafness. There should be easier ways, she said, for staff to raise concerns informally, outside of the line management chain. In many cases, this ‘deafness’ is because leaders really just haven’t woken up to what is going on – although it has to be acknowledged that in some cases they have heard, and chosen to ignore.

So why are organisations often inadvertently silencing their people? And what do leaders need to do to make sure they hear the things they really need to hear?

Power and hierarchy

Power and hierarchy can never be eradicated, however many people dream of living in a flat world. Take the simple phrase ‘my door is always open’, for example: this sends out many unintended silencing messages. By dint of having a door to open, it’s clear that the occupant has the upper hand – and if they were that interested in knowing about the world outside their door, wouldn’t they make the effort to come and meet others where they are, rather than expecting everyone to come to them.

Initiatives like leadership lunches or reverse mentoring are sometimes used to try and overcome this issue and ensure more junior voices get heard, but as well-meaning as they are, they often come with a shadow. The more junior employees speaking up often shift what they say, so it is more acceptable to the ears of the senior people they are talking to. If leaders genuinely want to hear from people around them, they need to develop a deep understanding of power differentials and how these can serve to silence others.

Self-awareness

The self-belief that comes with success also has an impact on leaders’ ability to really hear what their people are saying. Few people reach the senior ranks of any walk of life without having a deep-seated sense of their own special talents. This is often fuelled by competency frameworks which encourage people to play the role of the heroic individual, however much ‘humility’ they have to display while quietly admitting to their brilliance.

To avoid becoming a victim of their personal success, a leader has to find ways to stay curious and doubtful – to want to hear about how others see the world, to dial up their inquiry skills and downplay their advocacy.

Busyness

Busyness is both a curse of business life and a badge of honour. Busyness, and a lack of opportunity to reflect and reach out to others, is a useful excuse for keeping on with the current way of doing things. And yet what busyness often reveals is a failure by the leader to own or take accountability for the priorities that govern their working lives. Sue Gray’s report, for example, suggests that “too little thought” was given to what was going on in the country and how the actions of government staff would appear to the public.

HR’s role is to be the voice that whispers in the leader’s ear, that they are not as all-powerful as they think they are. To go with this HR needs to be the one to create credible spaces for difference, which connect up leaders not used to hearing from staff, who in turn are not used to being heard. This means people professionals moving away from a reliance on surveys and prescriptive diagnostics towards opportunities for encouraging genuine dialogue, where people can speak up in their own ways, unmanaged by an imposed language and process.

For a leader to be in touch, first of all they have to want to be in touch and believe in the value of others' experience. Secondly, they have to own the consequences of the title they have and how it shapes what will and won’t get said to them. And thirdly, they need to pay attention to the sort of spaces and places where the different faces will want to show up and talk about what matters to them.

John Higgins is an author, researcher and coach, and Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and organisational dialogue at Hult International Business School. They are co-authors of Speak Up