I cannot tell you just how many times I have witnessed the following dynamic in organizations: Managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explains the plan for a critical change initiative. Once the meeting is over, people push back their chairs and drift back towards their desks. As they congregate at the water cooler, they open up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend!”.
Within hours (or less…) these mischievous comments go viral throughout the organization and cynicism, sarcasm and resignation become rampant. As a result, people start paying lip service to the organizational mandate.
Meanwhile, their unsuspecting leaders leave the same meeting believing they have done a great job of communicating their strategy and getting their people on board.
Have you ever experience this type of dynamic?
Nothing will undermine an important strategy, initiative or the culture of an organization more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment. If employees are expressing criticism and skepticism about their leaders and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not on-board and not aligned with the company’s strategy.
So many leaders and managers simply don’t get it. They think that what people tell them to their face is what they really think. Sometimes that is the case. However, so many times it isn’t.
There are two types of conversations taking place in every organization at all times – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the diplomatic and politically correct spins on the truth. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to those they really trust.
When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse.
Instead of addressing the important opportunities and challenges out in the open they cover their behinds, blame others for things that are not working well, or they simply become silently frustrated and resigned. When they have to, they go along and pay lip service to the authorities. They say only what they believe to be politically correct and safe.
As a result, far too many leaders simply have no idea what their people are really thinking and saying. In fact, many mistake fear and compliance for commitment.
It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty. Leaders must be willing to hear the undiluted truth, and employees must be prepared to express it. It takes two to tango, however, this has to start and be encouraged and promoted from the top.
Leaders who learn to listen carefully and engage in blunt and meaningful dialogue with their people will find that the investment of time and effort is highly worthwhile. Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the back-channel conversations and start addressing challenges and opportunities head-on.
In fact, even if the strategy is not optimal, if managers and employees feel they can make a difference and their leaders really want to hear what they have to say, they will go out of their way to make sure it succeeds.
But, in order to succeed both leaders and employees have to go beyond their comfort zone for the good of the team.