When workers can’t be honest with bosses …

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It happens every day. A member of the workforce decides to take a risk to tell their truth to senior leadership about a business problem and there is a reprisal. Not only can you say goodbye to trust, since this kind of situation goes viral, but you can also probably forget having a workplace environment employees consider “safe” — i.e. where they can speak their truth to power without retribution.

This is not to say that one incident a culture will make, but more often than not, where there is one reprisal, especially without that leader being held accountable, there is a culture of fear, and this one incident merely reflects the mosaic employees know all too well.

When employees don’t trust their leadership to listen to their truth there are all kinds of consequences for the business:

  • Leadership is not considered credible
  • A lack of alignment among the workforce on the overall strategy
  • A higher level of internal competition and conflict
  • Loss of top talent which is very expensive
  • Poor service to customers or lower quality products
  • A lower than normal level of productive energy, risk taking, and innovation
  • A loss of change agility
  • A culture of power and politics

What can be done about this? If senior leadership is unaware this is going on, then very little can be done other than to increase awareness through instruments like organizational culture surveys. If senior leadership is aware and doesn’t know what to do about it, here are 7 things they might consider:

Leadership makes a commitment to move from fear to trust as their primary cultural driver; this is at the CEO and senior leadership team level

A cultural audit is completed, including 360-degree feedback, but also focus groups and in depth analysis to document the extent and degree of the problem/challenge

Senior leadership models the way by creating its own internal collaborative governance process — which ensures they are all operating by the same rules of engagement; this will radiate across the organization

Each leader ensures that this collaborative framework is embraced by their own leadership/management teams

Feedback processes are put in place, like roundtables, to ensure that the “truth” gets to senior leadership on a regular basis, and they respond in kind by making concrete decisions to address workforce concerns

Any leader/manager who fires or threatens an employee because they gave constructive feedback is immediately held accountable/fired; retribution is unacceptable

Senior leadership then works to create an ownership culture where every single member of the workforce has a stake in the work processes they implement every day — “what’s in it for me”.

Speaking truth to power is not easy — especially when many workforces have been told not to do so for years. But global competition requires that we change how we lead, and that means creating more truthful, trust-based, collaborative workplaces. And in doing that, we not only reduce/eliminate fear, but we create workplaces fit for the human spirit that then enable our organizations to soar.

Edward M. Marshall, Ph.D. is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919.265.9616.