Being able to disagree, share bad news, handle conflict, and elevate problems sooner rather than later are themes that often take center stage in our work advising leaders and their teams.  The fact that our most senior clients are grappling with this isn’t surprising. They are under incredible pressure to produce results under the glare of an increasingly bright spotlight of scrutiny from investors, the board, and their own executive leadership, making it harder than ever to share bad news.   

Consider recent events at GE, where reports revealed a company culture of “’success theatre’ that masked the rot” (Link to Article), leading to a $10 billion loss at the end of the fourth quarter in 2017, a major board shakeup, and talks of a company breakup.

While the impact is staggering to GE, they have plenty of company when it comes to an organizational reticence to share bad news or speak candidly.  Good companies already know this to be true – that an overly optimistic message masks the truth and hurts credibility.  But telling it ‘like it is’ inside your average organization is far easier said than done.  The reasons are many, whether it’s the long-held tradition of shooting the messenger, a fear of retaliation (including not being well-liked or seen as a team player), or an overly-deferential approach to hierarchy.   Often, in executive circles, the decision not to challenge or speak up can happen because leaders decide to “take it offline” or don’t want to drag out a meeting, the agenda is too structured and packed to provide any time for actual dialogue, or there are “extended team members” present so the setting feels inappropriate. 

It’s why companies continue to refine and improve their own processes to help employees speak up, have courageous conversations, challenge authority, and deliver straight talk.  Along with these efforts, CEOs themselves will underscore the importance of candor from their boards and leaders, including GE’s new CEO John Flannery, who expects the company and his own new board to “debate and challenge his decisions.” (Link Here)

Despite these measures, something continues to slip through the cracks.  This may be because at its core, speaking up requires a blend of nuanced leadership and communication skills that even the most experienced leaders may struggle to demonstrate, particularly with certain audiences, in certain settings.  It’s one of the reasons why a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t always work when tackling this issue.  We’ve seen this first-hand in the work we do with leaders, and through data collected on over 1,200 senior leaders who have taken the Bates ExPI, the first-ever research-based, scientifically validated assessment that measures qualities of executive influence and presence. 

Here are 3 truths we’ve found:

Behaviors that shut down the truth start at the top. If you want your leaders to go there, you need to examine how you typically react when they do.

Consider a recent example from one Line of Business President, who was meeting with the COO of his financial services organization.  “Why do I even pay you?” was the response he got from the boss after discussing less-than-stellar quarterly results.   Nobody likes to disappoint, but even the most thick-skinned leaders run out of patience to engage in conversations like these.  It’s no wonder a cynical ‘why bother?’ mistrusting view of leadership can quickly cement itself within an organization, or why employees feel compelled to spend more time than they should on curating and packaging information, so it lands ‘just so’ when communicating up.  The amount of time, energy, and hassle that is required to deal with an angry executive just isn’t worth it when you’ve got a business to run or a number to make.

It’s why we measure the quality of Assertiveness in the Bates ExPI.  Moving the needle of open communication and courageous conversation in a company starts at the individual level. Leaders need clear data and an objective view that not only looks at whether you are able to speak up, by audience (including senior leaders, peers, and direct reports), but also how you speak up.  Can you do so without shutting other people down?  Can you engage in conflict constructively?  Leaders need to understand whether they are seen as generating more light than heat, and truly creating an environment where it feels safe and helpful to put differences on the table.

This isn’t a gender thing. All leaders struggle with the challenge to “go there.”

Plenty of research, including ours, debunks the myth that women are less likely to speak up than men.  In our work with senior leaders, the challenges that come with speaking up are shared by men and women alike, including a reluctance to interrupt or challenge others publicly, or having an overriding concern with pleasing the boss and seeking approval.  In these cases, leaders undermine their own authority and limit their ability to be heard and influence in a meaningful way.   

These behaviors aren’t as uncommon among senior leaders as we might think, and we’re often last to notice them in ourselves.  Employees further down in the organization take cues from their leaders, which is why a ‘don’t rock the boat’ environment is often one that gets cascaded and deeply embedded in organizations.  Advice to ‘speak up more in meetings’ or work on self- confidence may be well-intended, but it often leaves leaders hanging, wondering, ‘How?’ 

Rather than trying to psych ourselves up to ‘just do it,’ this is where information, practice, preparation, and a roll-up-your-sleeves approach works wonders. Becoming a leader who consistently speaks up is hard, but it is attainable. We have found that a speak up culture means that leaders need information on how they are coming across on the behaviors to encourage transparency and constructive conflict and targeted coaching that provides practical solutions and doable strategies that can be applied immediately when the moment calls for it.

If you want to grow your ‘speak up’ culture, start with understanding the strengths and gaps in your leadership teams to enable the culture.

According to one HBR study, team failures run up to $10M annually because of the propensity to avoid conflict - one of the reasons why we developed a way to help teams gain understanding about how they perform. The Bates LTPI™ (Leadership Team Performance Index) is a new, research-based team assessment that measures qualities of a leadership team that build trust, credibility and collaboration across 15 different areas.  The idea behind it is that a team is not the sum of individuals, but the sum of how they behave together – it measures how a team “shows up” to the rest of the organization.

This includes Candor, to understand how a team ‘keeps it real’ with each other, and Courage, to appreciate how a team might challenge authority for a purpose.  These are critical behaviors to leading an organization that embraces speaking up and sets the right tone throughout the enterprise. Giving teams clear, factual data in how they are perceived as performing in these areas – and where they may have gaps that can derail progress – can be a game changer when looking to improve a ‘speak up’ culture from the top down into the ranks. 

Organizations are making tremendous strides to shift their cultures into something that goes beyond the lip service of ‘authentic leadership,’ and truly reflects an environment where speaking up, handling conflict productively, and candid, real conversations are the norm.  Whether it’s through increased executive support and investment in D&I or changing a Board of Directors, it can all have an impact, but messages that only talk the talk without holding leaders accountable, or apply a ‘peanut butter’ approach to address the issue isn’t enough.  Companies that help leaders focus on the right behaviors, and map out tangible path to build an environment the lets everyone “go there” will only accelerate their efforts to drive cultural change that lasts. 

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