Protect Voices of Leadership from below

Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn. But, in fact, whistle-blowers, creative deviants, and other such original voices routinely get smashed and silenced in organizational life. They generate disequilibrium, and the easiest way for an organization to restore equilibrium is to neutralize those voices, sometimes in the name of teamwork and alignment.

The voices from below are usually not as articulate as one would wish. People speaking beyond their authority usually feel self conscious and sometimes have to generate too much passion to get themselves geared up for speaking out. Of course, that often makes it harder for them to communicate effectively. They pick the wrong time and place, and often bypass proper channels of communication and lines of authority. But hurried inside a poorly packaged interjection may lie and important intuition that needs to be teased out and considered. To toss it out for its bad timings, lack of clarity or seeming unreasonableness is to lose potentially valuable information and discourage a potential leader in the organization.

That is what happened to David, a manager in a large manufacturing company. He had listened when his superiors encouraged people to look for problems, speak openly, and take responsibility. So he raised an issue about one of the CEO’s pert projects an issue that was too hot to handle and had been swept under the carpet for years. Everyone understood that it was not open to discussion, but David knew that proceeding with the project could damage or derail key elements of the company’s overall strategy. He raised the issue directly in a meeting with his boss and the CEO. He provided a clear description of the problem, a rundown of competing perspectives, and a summary of the consequences of continuing to pursue the project.

The CEO angrily squelched the discussions and reinforced the positive aspects of his pet project. When David and his boss left the room, his boss exploded: Who do you think you are, with your holier-than-thou attitude? He insinuated that David had never liked the CEO’s pet project because David hadn’t come up with the idea himself. The subject was closed.

David had greater expertise in the area of the project than either his boss or the CEO. But his two superiors showed no curiosity no effort to investigate David’s, no awareness that he was reasoning, no awareness that he was behaving responsibility with the interests of the company at heart. It rapidly became clear to David that it was more important to understand what mattered to the boss than to real issues. The CEO and David’s boss together squashed the view point of a leader from leader and thereby killed his potential for leadership in the organization. He would either leave the company or never go against the grain again.

Leaders must rely on others within the business to raise questions that may indicate an impending adaptive challenge. They have to provide cover to people who point to the internal contradictions of the enterprise. Those individuals often have the perspective to provoke rethinking that people in authority do not. Thus, as rule of thumb, when authority figures feel the reflexive urge to glare at or otherwise silence someone, they should resist. The urge to restore social equilibrium is quite powerful, and it comes on fast. One has to get accustomed to getting on the balcony, delaying the impulse and asking what really is the guy talking about? Is there something we’re missing?