Ask what you can do

Phil posted an excellent comment on my last blog posting and it was so good it inspired me to write another post!

There are two parallel questions in my mind: What types of structures/systems can enable people to express their opinions? What prevents people from expressing themselves?

One thing I’ve noticed in my work is that when organizations start to develop structures to enable people to bring out their voice, people either a. don’t use them (in that case they could not be the right ones and/or there is something in their human development that is holding them back) and/or b. the systems that are developed place all responsibility on management.

Phil posted an excellent comment on my last blog posting and it was so good it inspired me to write another post!

Regarding point a., I do believe that sometimes it’s not the best systems that are created to enable people to contribute and to bring more voices into the conversation. For example, there are a lot of senior management teams that host ‘town hall’ style meetings in which employees have a chance to ask the management questions and offer suggestions. Often these meetings are painful because they are set up in a huge theatre style auditorium with microphones for people to go up and share their thoughts. This is not an environment conducive to bringing up the tough issues in a constructive manner. Rather you can design the space so that people speak in smaller groups, ask each other questions, compile them collectively and these are asked by a moderator to the senior management. This way the real issues can surface without senior management getting personal about it or taking notes on who is asking which question and bringing it up later in a performance evaluation.

Regarding point b., a lot of companies run a standard employee engagement survey (in Holland at least, it’s the same external organization that develops these surveys for most large companies). There is not one single question in that survey that states what have you done as an employee to engage your manager? The survey is set up to reinforce a parent-child relationship where the parent (the manager) is the one who takes all the responsibility/blame for the child’s (the employee) unhappiness. When you are a parent and a child I understand the need for parents to shoulder the responsibility since kids have not yet developed certain cognitive abilities to take care of themselves. But when you have a group of adults, who have hopefully way more developed cognitive abilities than kids, a parent-child relationship makes no sense.

Both practices I described above to me indicate crutches to support a system that is broken. There seems to be a deeper problem that is more linked to individuals and the development of their self-esteem and self-confidence. I believe that people don’t express themselves because they feel uncomfortable. And because they feel uncomfortable they look for a safe way out which is often not approaching the problem directly, but indirectly. It is more ‘safe’ to talk to your friends and have them hug you than it is to walk up to the person/group that is making you feel uncomfortable. To me when people act in the latter way it demonstrates that they don’t really care about the other people. That might not really be their intention, but that’s how I perceive their actions. A person can feel incredibly self-empowered when they have other people around them that support them and tell them that the other person is wrong. But maybe that other person does need to improve and no one has ever told them. We have a responsibility towards each other to give feedback on our behaviours, styles, ways of thinking so we can all improve.

Teams, organizations, and society as a whole cannot advance if people are not willing to feel uncomfortable. This is exactly the way innovation happens; with someone boldly taking the uncomfortable step towards stating that there must be a better way. Some of the biggest changes have happened in our society because people have spoken truth to power. I can imagine that they were not very comfortable when they were doing that; but at least they would have the integrity of staying authentic to themselves and what they believed in.

I suppose my personal experiences make me very passionate about this topic. About four years ago I was on a team where I had a strong conflict with my team leader, who was and still is a very good friend. But because I felt uncomfortable directly confronting him I created a whole mess of a situation around which just distracted me, him, and the rest of our team from focusing on what mattered. And I ultimately hurt him by not directly expressing to him how I felt he could improve his behaviours because he also needed support in his development and I was not empathic towards his developmental needs. The lesson I learned is that if I want to be part of a high-performing team I have to contribute to it and not just expect my team leader to solve everything.

Leaders do have an enormous responsibility to create systems that make people feel safe to express themselves in a way that gets everybody contributing. But leaders like Kennedy and Obama remind us that they can’t do it alone. Everyone needs to chip in. And Kennedy’s famous words inspired the title for this posting, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”.

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