When Employees Are Open With One Another, but Not With Management
By Amy C. Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and the author of “The Fearless Organization”
It’s human nature to grumble a little with your co-workers about the boss, the boring meeting or some seemingly clueless directive from several layers above. Strictly speaking, such grumbling doesn’t cause real harm; everyone needs to vent now and then. But an organization is in serious trouble when most discussions on crucial issues take place in side conversations between employees, rather than in formal meetings, where concerns can be addressed thoughtfully with people in a position to instigate a change of course.
Side conversations occur because people believe it’s not acceptable to tell the truth publicly. They happen because employees have learned that meetings are places where you go along with the boss or the majority, even if you disagree with what’s being decided or planned. Because we all want to express ourselves and feel heard, we can’t stay silent forever. So we seek out our peers — the ones with whom we believe we can talk straight — and then say what we really think.
Here’s how to tell whether your organization might be plagued by an unhealthy degree of side conversations:
— During a development process, an overwhelming emphasis on speed or profit drives out conversations about a new offering’s quality and safety, and/or a new product or service is discussed in only positive terms in formal progress meetings. It’s a given that new offerings bring risks, uncertainties and problems. Not hearing about them should always raise a red flag.
— Subject-matter experts say little or nothing at meetings. Given their expertise and the novelty of the project, it’s probable they feel unable to say something negative.
— People automatically agree with leaders at meetings on crucial issues. A lack of data, substantive comments or enthusiasm in the conference room is always a warning sign.
To heal such a “sick” culture is to help all employees recognize that side conversations about substantive issues are a source of organizational pathology. Recovery starts with senior executives building a culture of psychological safety where employees believe that candor is expected and welcome. As I detailed in a recent book, this culture can be carefully built through three kinds of ongoing leadership action:
— SET THE STAGE: Be explicit about the challenges that plague all new endeavors. Make sure everyone knows you recognize the tension between the profits the company desires and the absolute premium placed on quality and safety. Point out that kicking the problem down the road costs more in the long run.
— INSIST ON INPUT: Don’t accept silence from subject-matter experts in meetings. Issue explicit invitations for input. Ask questions. Force yourself to be curious and ready to listen.
— APPRECIATE MESSENGERS: Respond productively to bad news and concerns. It might have taken courage for someone to speak. Focus on solutions. Invite ideas and look for volunteers to collaborate on solving problems.
Because of escalating uncertainty and risk in many industries, building a healthy culture for candid, challenging conversations has never been more important. It’s time to drive side conversations back onto the center stage.c. 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.