Voice of the employee: How to encourage staff to share uncomfortable truths
Of communication, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, victor of the Battle of Britain said, "If a junior officer puts forward a suggestion, the implication is that the senior officer ought to have thought of it and didn’t. The response given is that the proposal has been thoroughly considered by wiser heads and rejected for good reasons. After being squashed a sufficient number of times, the junior officer ceases to put forward unwelcome suggestions.” While this observation was related to military forces and government organisations, it applies equally to commercial businesses.
Good communications are at the heart of every successful business. Commercial managers know how important it is to get the business message out to the market and the customers. But good communications requires a two way traffic, talking to the market but also listening to the returning message. Problems arise when senior management don’t want to listen to opinions that are contrary to their thinking, and may often block or ignore inconvenient information.
That returning message may come directly from the customer or indirectly through market research and other means. Good news from the market is always welcome and develops confidence within a company, but bad news, however unwelcome can bring useful results.
Unfortunately, bad news is generally unwelcome, especially if it is contrary to the ideas of senior management, and can often be ignored if considered inconvenient, resulting in negative consequences.
In business as in everything else, good leadership requires the balancing of the needs of the task, the team and the individual. Leadership and management are not interchangeable as they are not the same thing. Good leaders are not necessarily good managers, and good managers may not be good leaders. Leadership is about inspiring others to achieve specific goals, while management is about organising people and resources to complete tasks efficiently. True leadership does not supress criticism or discourage constructive dissent, but encourages the discussion of alternative views
Commercial managers are responsible for producing and maximising profitable income for the long-term future of their business by anticipating and satisfying their customer requirements. To achieve this, commercial managers must have the ability to see and assess situations as they are rather than how they are imagined to be. Thus it is necessary for them to ensure that they receive all relevant information and news regardless of its origin. Having such insight should always be both dispassionate and questioning.
In every business, the workforce have a day-to-day understanding of how the business operate. While senior management may provide overall direction, business operations are carried out at a lower level.
For the commercial manager, this means that the detailed understanding of customer requirements and how they are satisfied resides in the employees who are generally in closer contact with customers and the market than senior management.
It follows that employees with that knowledge will be the first to know when things go right or wrong, and how processes may be failing or be improved. Commercial managers must foster trust, so that employees can freely comment directly to them on activities, including bad news and uncomfortable truths. Employees should be encouraged to ask questions and engage in valid criticism of actions and processes that affect the customer and the efficiency and effectiveness of business operations. By encouraging employees to speak out, commercial managers will have the advantage of being able to assess divergent points of view and be better able to assess solutions to problems, based on a clear-sighted appreciation of business realities rather than business illusions.
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False information vs true fact
Getting employees to speak freely in order to voice criticisms and positive ideas requires commercial managers to exhibit leadership by developing and fostering a culture of openness in the business environment. To achieve this commercial managers need to develop mutual trust and confidence between their staff and themselves. While some may advocate team building exercises, the development of trust and confidence between the commercial manager and their employees, is better served by the commercial manager taking an active interest in employees as individuals.
This means that commercial managers should:
- take an interest in the work of every employee,
- give appreciation to individuals of their activities and contribution
- Provide objectives and direction, while involving staff with every level of operational planning and fulfilment.
- Make sure that employees understand that they are not simply “cogs in the wheel”, but an integral part of achieving the business success that sustains the income and thus their livelyhoods
- Remember that while final decisions rest with the commercial manager, the making of the best decisions and taking the necessary actions is dependent on the information and actions derived from all employees.
- Get staff to identify problems and suggest solutions.
- Explain the objective or problem and invite employees to engage in discussion, and encourage constructive dissent.
- Encourage employee confidence by listening to concerns while providing help and advice when and where needed.
- Admit mistakes and encourage others to do likewise.
In an era where fake new abounds it becomes increasingly important to distinguish false information from true fact. This is especially important for the commercial manager, as wrong assumptions based on inaccurate or false information produces bad decisions which could affect future income.
When evaluating information employees should be encouraged to ask some important questions.
- How reliable is the source? How do you know?
- How credible is the information? Is the information probably or likely to be true? How do you know?
- Is the information confirmed by another source, is that source reliable? How do you know?
When information is received via social media or email the following additional questions must be considered:
- Is the URL real or a closely matched look-alike? Has it been checked?
- Is the story written by a source that you trust for reputation or accuracy? Can the source be verified as the originator?
- Is there unusual formatting? – Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts.
- Apparent confirmation from other social media sites does not imply accuracy or truthfulness as the reliability of all social media sites is questionable.
For the benefit of the business, it is important that communication goes up to management as well as down to the employees Enabling employees to have the confidence to give their views and to give constructive dissent when necessary based on their experience and understanding, is a valuable asset for any commercial manager in order to make better informed decisions and judgements. Even if you don’t like the message, don’t shoot the messenger, because the message might be true.