Take your head out of the sand

How many times have you participated in a meeting and halfway through it you realized that something important wasn’t being said openly and honestly? Knowing that others knew it, too, but no one said anything.

How many times have you seen managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explained the plan for a critical change initiative?  Once the meeting was over, people pushed back their chairs and drifted back towards their desks.  As they congregated at the water cooler, they opened up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend?”.

By the time these underhanded comments go viral throughout the organization cynicism and quiet rebellion is rampant. In this organization, people will definitely be paying lip service to the organizational mandate.

Meanwhile, their unsuspecting bosses leave the meeting imagining that they have done a wonderful job of communicating their strategy and that people are onboard.

Nothing will undermine a strategy or initiative more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment.

If employees are expressing skepticism and criticism about their leadership and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not onboard 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 people really think. Sometimes that is the simple truth. But, many times it isn’t.

At any time, there are two types of conversations taking place in every organization – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the politically correct things. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to their close friends and confidants.

When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse. Instead of addressing the important things out in the open they tend to 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 pay lip service to the authorities, but 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. As a result, their ability to enlist and engage their people in their vision and strategy is compromised

It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty.  Leaders must be willing to hear the unvarnished truth, sometimes about them, and employees must be prepared to express it.  It takes two to tango. However, this has to start with the leaders.

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 deeply worthwhile.  Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the back channel noise 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 leaders have to muster the courage to take their heads out of the sand.


Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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