The staff had to give credit to Sarah. At least she was trying. Well, at least it seemed like she was trying. This is what they thought, among other things, as they sat in one of the company’s larger conference rooms awaiting their ‘action day’ on their employee engagement survey responses. The scores had not been wonderful, and getting to the answers was made more difficult by the fact that a large percentage of the staff felt it wasn’t safe to speak up on issues, especially if they carried a negative bias towards Sarah. She was not known as someone who was welcoming to criticism and eventually would dole out retribution to whomever made the comment. The department was littered with those who had tried it in one way or the other. It seemed only those who complimented and flattered Sarah went anywhere in the department, and those people had a very different name among the staff.
Sarah either didn’t recognize this correlation or didn’t want to see it; the staff didn’t know which. What they did know was that they would continue to spend their time in these sessions producing little or nothing because the truth was just too dangerous to speak.
The facilitator today was someone from the company which had administered the survey. He had been at the company before, and in front of Sarah’s department before, so had some understanding of the issues. He began without much introduction, saying that they had a lot to do and little time to do it in.
The session ran in a pretty typical fashion to the previous attempts. The staff was given self-adhesive notes in order to write things that were good about the department. If the next step followed suit, they would go up to a piece of paper in front of the room and attach these notes onto the sheet in some fashion. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen just that way.
When the staff was finished writing their notes, the facilitator called upon one of the members of the staff, Mitch, to bring his responses up. Before putting them up on the paper, however, Mitch was asked to tell them out loud to the group. Mitch, glad he didn’t write anything particularly offensive, did so, while the rest of the staff furiously edited their notes for when it was their turn.
The next part of the exercise the staff knew well. As they had written down what was good with the department, now they would write down what was wrong with the department. Knowing the facilitator would ask them to come up and speak their criticisms, the each staff member was more than a little nervous. Fortunately, the facilitator gave them a chance to save both themselves and their jobs. He asked them to write down something that could be improved with their department or with the company. To a person, everyone jumped on that opportunity and, one by one, they brought up their papers describing what was wrong with the company, not the department.
This was not lost on Sarah, who commented that no one really mentioned anything wrong with the department, but with the company. She wondered aloud if this was because people didn’t want to speak of the issues with the department or that the department was running well. In a few minutes, she went on to the next topic of discussion, and didn’t give another mention of the odd case of why nobody would speak badly of the department.
Like her predecessor, Sarah didn’t, or wouldn’t, recognize a fundamental truth. People had indicated, now for a second year in a row, that they were afraid to speak up in the department. If your staff has indicated in an anonymous survey that they are afraid to speak up in the department, why would you have a session where they are mandated to…speak up in front of the department about the problems of the department? For many who knew Sarah, they believed this was a calculated move by her to indicate to her leadership peers that she had done her due diligence, but her staff was unwilling to say anything, or that they had indicated nothing at all was wrong with the department. That box could be checked off, and Sarah could remain secure in the delusion of her own leadership greatness.
Leaders need courage. They need courage beyond just having to make ‘the tough decisions’, but also to accept criticism about their leadership style. They also need courage to be able to change that style for the benefit of their staff. When a leader arranges a situation to purposely avoid that criticism, it shows that they know things are wrong, but either refuse to or are unwilling to change. It is a very selfish leadership that will be a leader in name and salary only, and not as a person with followers who truly believe in their leadership. The only leadership they exhibit is of their own ego.
When you have to rig the contest in order to assure the outcome you want, you are not a leader. You are little more than a carny game operator who makes sure that nobody can win at your games of chance. In that situation, the real losers are all those who are subjected to your so-called leadership.