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The Power of Candor

How nice leaders create fear in the workplace

Todd Holzman: Hi. This is Todd Holzman, organizational consultant. And today, I want to talk to you about how nice leaders create disempowered and fearful employees. This is going to be a continuation of our empowerment discussion the other day. I just got back from a long day with that executive team I told you about at the consumer goods company, and we spent about 90 minutes trying to think a little deeper about the empowerment issue. Over the last year, despite their attempts to improve empowerment, dimensions on their surveys are actually getting worse, not better. And there are two problematic dimensions. Number one, people don’t feel like they could freely express themselves, their ideas or challenge the status quo way of doing things, and they fear that if they do so, there will be negative consequences. The first problem is around they feel like if they express themselves freely, there will be negative consequences. Number two, the other one is about decision making, as you would expect, that decisions that should be made at their level are being made at a higher level.

So the first thing I asked the group, I said to them, this is clearly a persistent problem. Things are getting worse. What’s at stake if we can’t figure out what’s really causing it and we can’t solve it in a way that it stays solved? And they said two things. Number one, innovation’s going to suffer because they’re not going to get enough ideas from their people about how to grow the business. And they said, “We can’t be the only ones coming up with ideas. We need their help, particularly given it’s the innovative ideas that are going to help drive our substantial growth.” And they are trying to significantly and organically grow their business.

And number two, that everything, that’s going to be incredible inefficiency. That if they keep kicking the decision’s up to us that they could be making themselves. Everything’s going to go a lot slower, and that’s going to burn a lot of time. And time is a very precious and scant resource now for them and for us. And I asked them how much time do you think is being burnt and lost because of disempowerment, this disempowerment dynamic in the culture? And they said somewhere between a medium amount of time and a high amount of time. They said medium high.

There’s a real problem here and we got to figure out why it’s going on and help the team think a little deeper about it because whatever solutions they put in place haven’t solved it, and the data showing that the disempowerment problem is getting worse. So I’m not going to focus on the decision making point now. I’m simply going to focus on the issue of people feeling like if they fully express themselves, these are folks below the top team, and you know challenge the status quo that there are going to be negative consequences.

So let’s get into that. A couple of ironies around that. One, this top team actually really wants to hear people’s views. They really want them to challenge the status quo because they know they need that in order to grow their businesses. And their bonuses, as a top team, are tied to their ability to grow the business and they know the ability to grow the business is dependent upon hearing their people’s critiques of how things are working and their ideas about how to make things better.

The second thing that was very confusing to the team is why would our people feel afraid of expressing themselves to us when we are notoriously nice. We are known to going the extra mile to be congenial and nice and positive. We’re praising people all the time. And, by the way, now having worked with them for a few months, these would be the last people on earth you would be afraid of expressing yourself to. You know they’re incredibly open. They’re humble. They are dedicated to understanding the truth of things and they truly want to do the right thing.

My own experience working with them is they’re very willing to have their thinking challenged. They’re very open when you hold the mirror up to them around their own behavior, how they’re working together as a leadership team. Open, open, open, open. And they’re known, they told me this today, “The other divisions see us as the nicest culture to work on. So why on earth would our employees be afraid of expressing themselves to us?” And I said, “Well, maybe that’s exactly why they are. The fact is maybe that you’re too nice and it’s actually backfiring.” And somebody said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.” I said, “Well, so let me explain one possible angle on this.”

If they sense that you’re reluctant to freely express yourselves, which we’ve all recognized has been a problem on this top team. That you tend to put each other’s comfort over candor. This is something you guys have your own hang ups and reluctance to freely express yourselves. And now, imagine somebody on your team kind of knows how you really think and feel, and then they’re part of, they’re sometimes invited to your top team meetings. And they see there’s a gap between what you told them and what you’re telling the team. That somehow you’ve turned that frown upside down and you’re not saying it’s a problem anymore, it’s an opportunity. You’re not saying there’s a big problem, we have a bit of a problem. They see the gap.

Or if they sense that you’re being overly positive with something to them about their own performance, or if they just… People are pretty savvy. They can detect any inauthenticity. Not maybe any inauthenticity, but people are not so dupable that when you try to massage the words, they can feel the effort that you’re putting into it to say it just in the right perfect way so there’s no way that they can get offended. People pick up on these things. And if they see their leaders being so concerned about freely expressing themselves, what they will immediately conclude, in a world where people tend to take their cues from authority, is that there’s a rule, be careful about freely expressing yourselves. And if my leaders are doing that with me and with their colleagues and with their boss then, man, as somebody who’s got a lot less power than they do, I better be extra careful. And regardless of whether there have been any true negative consequences for challenging the status quo and freely expressing oneself.

And I asked them, had there been any examples where people have been punished, they’ve lost credibility. They have lost their bonus. They didn’t get their promotion. They got fired. They said, “No, we’re always applauding people for expressing themselves.” But even the absence of that experience, people know that there is an unwritten rule. Of course, there’s got to be a negative consequence if you violate the rule. Because why would it be a rule if there wasn’t going to be a negative consequence? And if you believe there’s going to be a negative consequence, of course, you’re going to feel fear. And I asked them what’d they think about that. And they said yeah and they agreed. And they said, “We’re so oriented around being positive all the time that the one moment, if we’re not constantly giving somebody a candy all the time, which we feel like we have to do with our people, the moment we say something that’s slightly critical, it really stings them a lot harder.”

And then, the next question they asked is, “How can we create a more comfortable environment for them?” And I said, “I think that way of thinking is just going to exacerbate the problem and is partially probably why you’ve seen this dimension of empowerment get worse over the last year. Because by saying you have to create a more comfortable environment for them, you’re saying, ‘You’re the reason why they’re not freely expressing themselves,’ and there may be something to that. But if you take all the responsibility on your shoulders, you’re taking, by definition, the responsibility off of their shoulders. And you’re then kind of treating them almost like victims of your horrible, oppressive management style, which isn’t the case. And you’re saying, ‘You’re to blame.'” Well, the minute you take responsibility off of somebody’s shoulders and put it on your own on your own and say, “It’s not their fault. It’s yours,” that’s disempowering.

And so, what I said is, “I think we have to look at, certainly, how you’re interacting with your people and the subtle ways that you’re disempowering them. But also perhaps the most empowering thing that we can do around this issue is to actually equip people to be able to come up with better ideas. We can figure out ways to improve the quality of their thinking. And then, on the back of that, to express themselves in highly effective manners with you, so that they do it in a way which doesn’t create all the worst case disaster fantasy scenarios they’ve played out in their mind. And instead, you end up really being interested in what they have to say and they see that. They see that you’re taking them and their insights and their ideas seriously.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to agree with every insight and idea, that would simply be pandering to them. And, again, anytime you pander to them, it’s just going to weaken them and you weaken them, that has a disempowering effect. But when they feel they start to see that they can get you to take their own insights and ideas seriously. That’s going to build confidence in them. That’s going to decrease their fear. And if that’s one of the biggest dimensions around empowerment we’ve got to solve, that’s going to go a long way to solving it. And then, we probably also have to start to get you guys off of this obsession with having to be nice and congenial and positive.”

The way you create empowered adults is to treat them like adults, not to treat them with kid gloves and… What is the word? Mollycoddle them or infantilize them. Sorry, I’m channeling these big words for my Harvard professors. And how do you do that? Well, you’re open and honest with them. If you disagree with their idea, you tell them why, like you would somebody you really respect and that you see as someone who is strong. But if you treat people like they’re weak, they’re going to feel weak. They’re going to lose their confidence and they’re going to feel like they have no power.

I think we got to teach you guys just to be a lot more… Kind of speak your minds with them so they could see that model by you. You could start busting the notion that there’s an unwritten rule that you can’t speak freely, and to teach you how to do it in a way which develops people and doesn’t have the disempowering effect that you’re afraid of having on them when you more freely speak your minds to them and to each other.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you.

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