What We Have Here…

Even though a question was asked, there was silence in the room. It wasn’t that the question was so difficult that nobody could answer it. No, rather it was that nobody wanted to answer the question. Except one.

The venue was the monthly staff meeting. Human Resources had been invited to discuss the results of the yearly engagement survey. While there had been some good points, mostly in the area of serving the department’s customers, there were also some areas where improvement was needed. One of those areas was communication from the executives of the group to the rank-and-file workers.

The Human Resources representative had outlined what it planned on doing to rectify the problem, and had then asked if the department’s staff had any contributions about why communication was an issue and what could be done about it. That was the reason for the silence.

It wasn’t that the staff didn’t have any suggestions. The executives of the department only seemed to communication at these monthly meetings or when something was needed. Otherwise, they stayed in their offices, barely interacting with most of the staff who didn’t directly report to them. There wasn’t malice in this non-action, and most of the staff ignored the fact that they were ignored. Still, it bothered most of the staff that they were treated simply as workers, so that is how they acted.

It also wasn’t that the staff was afraid of retaliation if they spoke up. They knew they would be looked upon unfavorably, nothing would be done, and some being given the feedback might even take offense at the words spoken. Still, the staff kept silent, despite the benevolent gaze of the department head.

The silence was broken by one of the department executives who offered her interpretation of the results. She explained that there were two questions on communication on the survey – one for the company as a whole and one for the department. The executive speculated that the staff simply confused the two questions. They thought, as a group, they were answering the question on the company as a whole and not the one for the department. There was no problem to report, according to her.

While the staff continued to be silent within the conference room, there was much chatter after the meeting ended. The staff could not believe the temerity of the executive to explain away the results, and explain it as the staff not having the sense enough to know which question they were answering. Nothing demonstrated the gap between the executive group and the staff better than that comment. The ‘confused’ employees went back to their desk assured nothing would change with attitudes like that.

When evidence comes that shows there is a problem, a leader has three avenues of approach. He or she can choose to ignore it, explain it away, or find the reason behind the problem and work towards solving it. The good leader doesn’t have a choice, as only the last is an option. Not only does the problem get tackled, the staff is engaged in his or her leadership, increasing engagement and productivity.

Blame the staff? Don’t be surprised if the communication worsens, productivity goes down, and the scores decline. After all, if they can’t even differentiate between two questions, how can they be expected to do their jobs competently?

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