“Often, poor leadership is masked by those with the loudest voices and strongest opinions” (Nick Fewings)

Many employees are highly skilled, adept at problem-solving and creative in fulfilling organisational goals. Some are business builders and grow the company’s reach (brand quality, sales, footprint, etc.). Most employees, however, though maybe not entrepreneurial, at least have a few good ideas that could be applied to processes, systems or products. Unfortunately, these ideas are often not heard, usually as a result of some or more of the following reasons:

  • An environmental culture that is autocratic or bureaucratic (or both)
  • A leadership team that is “full of themselves” (selfish, pompous or arrogant)
  • A “distant” management team (one that doesn’t engage)
  • A culture of non-recognition (no appreciation is offered)
  • An environment where the principle of the dignity of the human being is not upheld (not being treated like a person)

When employees’ ‘voices’ are not heard (or they are overlooked, discounted or ignored by those in leadership), employees lose heart. Their hope for the possibility of being able to contribute with more than their hands and their feet is dashed and many, subsequently, when coming to work, leave their passion (their heads and hearts) at home. Arrogant or distant leaders create a “zombie” culture – an environment where mechanical employee bodies go about their respective business tasks, but with apathetic and disappointed hearts. These so-called “leaders” break the spirit of good people, people that previously wanted to contribute and offer their best. As a result, employees become distracted and distant – the trust has been broken.

Changing a culture that is toxic back to one that is empowering requires huge doses of authenticity, humility and intentional leadership. Extending trust to a suspicious environment is tough – winning back the hearts and minds of employees demands leadership consistency, integrity and compassion. It requires willingness (and also good leadership and communication skills) on the part of all in the management team to be able to move into ambiguity in conversations (the place where one is not sure how an employee is going to respond) and to start listening without feeling threatened. It requires genuine care.

Leadership steps to redress the environment could include the following:

  1. Admit past mistakes and apologise – I was impressed by a CEO of a large multi-national company who communicated the following message to all employees, spread over many countries: “As a leadership team, we were forced to take a deep and hard look at ourselves – we realised that we had not been listening well to our customers and that we had also not listened to you, the employees. We are busy rectifying that. We want to start working as a team now”.
  2. Create opportunities to engage across all levels – an over-reliance on supervisors and junior managers to engage with lower level employees creates distance. Break down the “us (employees)/them (leadership)” paradigm with deliberate attempts at engaging employees.
  3. Grant employees a “voice” – listen for any emotional content in what employees talk about. Encourage suggestions (not by means of a suggestion box, but rather through interaction). Acknowledge and act on concerns.
  4. Offer appropriate recognition where deserved – make sure that it is specific and public. Highlight that which people are doing right in the company.
  5. Keep referring to the company values – these should be frequently communicated and “lived out” by the leadership team. Make sure that corresponding behaviour expectations are clearly understood by all.

A business can realise overall improvement when a leadership team grants employees their respective “voices”. Harnessing the combined creativity and skills of all employees requires engagement at every level in the company. It’s a transformative leadership imperative.