It’s become a contemporary orthodoxy that good leadership involves maintaining an open-door policy and make time to meet staff that don’t sit around the boardroom table. However, are good rapport building and listening skills enough to ensure that a leader will hear the “truth?” Ashridge Business School leadership expert Megan Reitz thinks not.
There are always competing and conflicting truths circulating in complex organisations. Reitz asks: “…whose ‘truth’ gets heard? Whose ‘truth’ gets acted upon and invested in?” Leaders who believe they know exactly what’s going on, she argues, are almost certainly deluded.
How do leaders ensure that another Toshiba scandal doesn’t happen on their watch (the Japanese conglomerate was found to have systematically inflated its profits for six years by hundreds of millions of pounds through dodgy accounting)? The key, Reitz and her research colleague John Higgins believe, is to build a culture that welcomes the practice of speaking truth to power.
Reitz and Higgins have uncovered some important themes. For one thing, speaking truth to power takes real skill. We frequently fail to hear things that don’t fit with our expectations. Phrasing a contradiction concisely and in such a way that it’s experienced merely as a supportive alternative is crucial.
Leadership also involves being aware of fear. Employees may well have noticed something wrong but opt to remain silent because they fear getting into trouble or even losing their jobs. “Bosses” often underestimate the anxiety that their seniority arouses in their staff. Just telling people that your door is always open won’t be enough to allay this fear.
One way of encouraging people to speak out with their ideas and critiques, Reitz and Higgins have discovered, is to ensure they inhabit an environment that demonstrably cares about their wellbeing and comfort. Grubby, worn carpets and paint flaking off external fences, for example, can convey the impression that the organisation has lost self-respect and doesn’t respect its own staff. Appearances matter.