When was the last time someone pointed out your blind spots or the shortcomings of some of your decisions? It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? No one wants to hear about their flaws. The (not so) good news for leaders is that they are often shielded from this because people stay silent. Speaking truth to power is often perceived as too risky.
But we have a feedback culture and an open-door policy for heaven’s sake!
I’m sure you’re doing lots of good stuff – but who is the judge of whether it’s enough?
You may think power and hierarchy don’t exist in your organisation, and everyone is empowered to speak truth to power. However, we label each other all the time based on gender, age, ethnicity, job title, appearance, and more, and these labels convey status depending on the context.
Recently, I heard Professor Megan Reitz speak, and her research shows that people with advantageous, status-giving labels often don’t realise their impact on others. As a coach, I was surprised to realise that I’m not immune to this effect either. While I consider myself approachable, some people still treat me like an all-powerful being (I set them straight immediately of course…), and my sponsor may be their boss – it all has an impact.
So why does any of this matter?
According to Professor Reitz’s research, employees’ silence “costs relationships, creativity, engagement, and performance.” Staff members frequently know of problems or opportunities and how to address them, yet they remain silent.
How can we encourage others to speak up?
Rather than banging on about your open-door policy, think about what you can do personally and organisationally to make it easier to speak truth to power. Consider these ideas:
- Introduce reverse mentoring. Senior leaders should select a less senior employee of a different sex or ethnic background as a mentor. Mentors can help leaders understand what’s really going on from a different perspective, encouraging them to speak truth to power.
- Observe how you respond to challenges. If you react negatively, even occasionally, don’t expect to hear from anyone other than your trusted few who can get past your appearance.
- Check your “little list.” You probably have a list of team members who “fit in” and those who don’t. Your team probably senses who is favoured. Check in with this list and see if you can expand it to hear more voices.
Finally, share your insights with the management team. Which voices are not being heard, and what opportunities are being missed?