Leaders that invite unwelcome truths

Earlier this month the newspapers were full of the 1985 Air India crash inquiry. We got a glimpse into organizational culture when James Bartleman described being “hissed” at by an RCMP officer as he tried to share important information. The story reminds me of what the inquiry into the 1986 NASA Challenger disaster revealed of that organization’s bureaucratic culture. In that case, an engineer was told to “take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat”, as he was asked to reconsider his technical advice not to launch the shuttle.

      Although both these events happened 20 years ago, it’s worth considering if there has been significant change in the way that organizations gather information and make decisions. I wonder if today’s leaders have learned to invite unwelcome news. Here are 5 areas to focus on if you’d like to increase the openness and truth-telling in your organization.  

 Is there a channel?  First and foremost, you need to have a process or a way for people to tell you things. Are you accessible enough to get information from those who want to reach you? Some leaders get so busy with travel, meetings and rubbing shoulders with the senior groups that they are virtual strangers in the rest of the organization. Check your calendar and include days in the office that put you in the cafeteria, on the elevator, strolling the halls a little. Include events that the staff are planning. Regularly use the common rooms, and the washrooms in different locations. Many CEOs have learned important facts at informal meals from staff they wouldn’t typically interact with.

Are  you approachable? So, you are accessible, but no one talks to you. If you are naturally shy or introverted it may take more energy to put on your social face. Smile at others. Nod and ask how they are. Such small gestures are not insignificant. They signal that you are open and welcoming. They allow people to approach you with information that may be important and already being overlooked or undervalued by their peers and supervisor.

 Are you receptive?  Visualize this team meeting: The agenda is winding down and there are about 5 minutes left. People are packing away their laptops. Someone who has been fairly quiet finally gets your eye and tentatively says, “I’m not feeling very comfortable with the way we’ve decided to proceed on this item…”  What happens next is crucial to demonstrating receptivity. Do you frown and glance at your watch? Do you roll your eyes and look at others as if to say, “here it comes.” ? Do you laugh and say jokingly, “Well I expected you wouldn’t be, but what’s comfort got to do with our need to get moving on this thing quickly?”  Do you keep packing up the projector and say, “Too late. The meeting discussion is over.”? Do you hiss at people? All of these responses tell the meeting participants the same thing – don’t bother to raise concerns or disagree.

       Increase your receptivity by holding yourself as neutral as possible. Minimize body language cues that indicate judgment of the other person’s point of view. Trained counselors do this very well as they listen to their clients – and the result is an increased likelihood of openness and rapport. Sit back, relax your face and body, and say, “I have a few minutes more, can we discuss it right now?” or “The meeting is almost over, but I do want to hear this. Can we talk on the walk back to the office, or when do you want to tell me more about what has you concerned?”

Do you sort information with the right criteria? Unfortunately, our listening skills vary when we listen to different people. Our hierarchical organizations contribute to communication blocks by running on the assumption that we should listen more carefully to those above us than those below or a peer level. But we also have our own biases. Do you listen better to older staff than to younger? Do you have assumptions about what level of education is worth listening to? Gender research shows that men tend to interrupt women in meetings. Pay attention in the next few days to who you listen to. Which phone calls do  you return – and which do you ignore? Who do you sit near in meetings. I’ve learned that some voices can be irritating or unpleasant to listen to. In business you have to work extra-hard to listen well – past all of your assumptions and biases – and welcome the message if not the messenger.

 Are your meetings too easy?  The purpose of most meetings is to share information and solve problems together. If you are leading the meeting, it’s your job to ensure that all the important information gets on the table. Take responsibility for managing the communication processes in your team. Think back over the last three meetings you had. Did anyone disagree? Were there any surprises? If every meeting follows the agenda exactly, never goes over time and ends with full agreement, if could be construed that you are an expert facilitator.  It may also be that no one wants to disrupt your control or upset you. Groupthink is a social phenomenon where people in a group tend to agree with each other and the collective decision quickly to maintain group norms and harmony. You can disrupt the meeting yourself if no one else will. Here are some ways to bring active contrariness into the group: “OK, I’m sure some of you must see what won’t work with this. I’d appreciate it if someone would disagree with me.” or “There must be someone who can be the devil’s advocate on this one – would someone be interested in helping me deconstruct this?” or “Our management group is going to have a lot of concerns about this – what do you think they’ll be most worried about?”  

For busy leaders, it may seem like a waste of valuable time to invite disagreement. Remember the lessons from the disasters of the ‘80s. People in all roles and at all levels may have something they would like to tell you. Good listening never goes out of style.

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