The silence of leadership…

Picture the scene.  You are on a tube train, minding your own business and then it starts.  Someone picks on someone else.  You turn to look, see some poor person on the receiving end of abuse from an unsavoury character.  Its ugly, threatening.  What do you do?  Like most people I suspect you will ignore it, bury your head in your paper, raise your book closer to your face, discreetly turn up the volume on your iPod and thank your lucky stars its not you.

It’s wrong, of course, but totally understandable.  The risk is too high. You weigh up your chances against the threatening oaf and decide the risk is too great.  And there may be a hidden weapon, you never know.  So back to your book you go, lamenting how the country is going to the dogs.

Now re run that scenario again.  But instead of no action, when the trouble starts, 4 or 5 brave passengers jump straight up and step in, coming to the persons aid.  What then? Experience tells us that we are much more likely to step up ourselves, joining in and helping the others. Why? Well two prime reasons:

Risk – you against the bad guy? Way too risky. But you and 4 or 5 others?  That’s a different matter.  The risk is shared – you don’t feel so vulnerable. Lots of people are saying what you want to say and doing what you want to do.

Ego – I don’t mean this in an unkind way at all.  Being able to ‘do good’, is good for the soul.  The thought of being part of a group action to save the victim makes you stand out.  It boosts your self-esteem.  You feel less of a victim yourself.  His pain is your pain so fixing it helps you too.

The overall effect of the crowd – the increased numbers of like minded folk stepping-in gives you the confidence to step up yourself.

So what has this got to do with organisations?

Well, it occurs to me that the train scenario represents what is going on all around the globe in dysfunctional organisations it represents everything that is wrong with the way we run those companies.

In every organisation there is someone – the CEO or divisional/departmental heads – orchestrating the actions of others.  OK, so they are not harassing or threatening physical violence (not in all cases anyway!).  But replace that with politics, process, ego, power, ambition and couple it with hierarchy and the dynamics are very similar.

Unrest in organisations has largely been an underground thing.  Keeping your head down, turning the other cheek, thanking your lucky stars it wasn’t your ass on the line – all similar behaviours.  We’ve all done it, only ever really venting our frustrations in the annual employee survey or to co-workers standing around the watercooler.

When the chips are down, even though most of us feel the pain, we never speak up and would probably not support anyone that did.  Why not?  Because we don’t want to rock the boat, to put our name in the frame, be singled out for dissent or put our head above the parapet.  The risk of stepping up is too high – there is no one to share the risk with. It’s you against the machine. You alone against the big guy.

But I think that’s all about to change.

Suddenly, people have a voice.  As someone recently said in a comment I read:

(With social media) Every employee now has a microphone and they are starting to use them.

A recent court case in the US has effectively positioned free speech on facebook as an employee right – which roughly translated means that expressing your dissatisfaction re your boss and employer on your facebook page can no longer be held against you.  This will only encourage those who have already decided to step up and ‘out’ poor management and leadership practice openly on social media sites.

And once the ball starts rolling, it won’t stop.  Organisation dysfunction is now leaking out, for better or worse, through social communication and those that kept their heads down for fear of reprisals will now be so much more inclined to step up too.  Why wouldn’t they?  They are no longer alone.  Overnight half the company could be standing up and saying its not good enough, taking the leadership to account.  Sites like www.glassdoor.com are already gaining momentum, encouraging employees to say how it is in their organisation, including compensation levels and rating the CEO.

In a funny kind of way, social media is re-enabling the collective.  It seems like a modern, virtual, global, Trade Union type camaraderie is emerging.  Leaders and organisations should really be taking note.  Riding roughshod over your “greatest asset” might just be about to come with a much wider set of set of implications.

Back to the thug on the train on the train analogy – take a look over your shoulder, you might just find the whole carriage standing behind you.

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9 thoughts on “The silence of leadership…

  1. Nicely done Gareth. I hear ya! It was the slog of trying to encourage folk to speak up, to do stuff, to proceed until apprehended, that eventually got the better of me in the world of employment. I may go back there and take up my sword of confidence again one day but for now, I’m having too much fun developing and growing business for me and for others too. You say things are about to change, they’re changing already.

    I’ve never had a train fight. But I do remember standing in the high street next to a woman eating KFC (yuck) a little while back. She dropped the bag on the floor. I picked up the bag and very politely said “scuse me, think you dropped something”. She went into a megarant and stormed off, flinging the bag onto the floor. I stood there bewildered and a little rattled. This older guy then appeared, picked up the bag and went after the woman. She was eating away and yacking on her phone too. The guy just popped the bag onto her head, simple as that. Cue spontaneous applause and a red faced bag head!

    I hope folk will be encouraged by your post and share more stories.

    Cheers – Doug

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    • Your comment gave me a great laugh! I honestly laughed out loud at the story, what a great one it is! If only we could spread more of that intolerance to the belligerent! you brightened up my day! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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      • My pleasure Gareth. Since a kid I have followed a philosophy of “feel the fear and do it anyway”. My late Mum encouraged me to do this, I owe her so much. Even if I don’t always feel the fear until after I’ve done it. I swear I thought the KFC woman was gonna beat me up with her spicy chicken wing!

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  2. Gareth,

    Interesting post.

    Using the train analogy I have 2 personal experiences one involving a friend of mine (not the mythical “friend”, I saw this happening) who being a burly red haired guy (and with temper to match) told the guy to stop picking on the girl and when the guy called him something I won’t repeat here, asked if he wanted to step off the train and discuss the situation. The bully backed down and decided his best course was to leave the train. My friend received a kiss on the cheek and a round of applause.

    The second involved a drunk guy (who it seemed had avoided a shower for some time) picking on a kid and my brother (who had also had a few beers at this point) rather than confront the drunken guy offered him a tissue to blow his nose that was running all over the place… The drunk guy switched his attention and started calling my brother a poof, which my bro laughed off. The situation was diffused and the kid looked very grateful.

    I would like to say that I am always like the first friend, who confronts the situation without question of consequence (but there was an element of he knew he could manage the outcome on the platform) but often find myself offering the tissue – diffusing the situation but getting the colleague out of the situation.

    I would like to say I line up with colleagues to fight the good fight and will happily do it as long as when I start a whip round for mortgage and car payments everyone chips in 😉

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    • Great stories Rob, thanks for sharing. Both solutions are good, as long as the message gets through that its no right to do that. Im more of the diffuser type unless someone angers me but im no slayer so id have to be feeling exceptionally brave to ‘step off the train!” In a work context though, i guess what i see is that we no longer have to fear quite as much the standing up and taking issue. I see signs, small as they might be at the moment, that the possibility of needing to have that whip round is getting smaller, even if you do speak out!

      Thanks for reading. Will a tenner help?! 😉

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  3. Brilliant post Jonesy. I completely agree, there are so many upper management issues that go unchallenged because people fear the backlash that might follow. It’s amazing how much people think they can get away with simply because they own the company.

    In the age of Social Media, Brands are being built from the inside out. So, while a brand may get praise on the outside, its employees might be giving a real insight to the hell that goes into making the business ‘look’ good. Apple springs to mind with their manufacturing of the iPhone4 in poor conditions – when staff put the story out on Social media sites, Apple management had no choice but to do a swift about-face. When outside fans, followers and friends are exposed to the ugly truth behind how many companies are run, it can have a devastating effect.

    For instance, Radio Shack in America has never fully recovered from the press surrounding their CEO coming in and emailing 400 employees with “The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.” People no longer wanted to be associated with a company with such disregard for their employees whose service helped build the company.

    Perhaps with the US court ruling you made note of, Social Media will evolve into the stone that will slay the Goliath of senior management.

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    • The voice is getting louder, you cant get away from it. The Radio Shack and Apple examples are great ones. 10+ years ago they would have got away with that. Not any more. Will definitely have a levelling effect. Go David!

      Thanks for commenting Brandon. Coffee soon!

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  4. I’m glad I stumbled across this through my pal Doug!

    It’s like the voice inside my head. I read this post and thought wow. I am not alone. Thanks for shedding light on an unspoken practice. Somehow ‘speaking up’ in organizations became equivalent with ‘rocking the boat’ ‘causing havoc’ and ‘stirring the pot’ ie all negative things!

    Somehow we were supposed to witness injustice, aggressive politics, inequity, discrimination, bullying and just keep quiet. Have we become so desensitized that it no longer matters? But it does matter, at least to folks like yourself and us who’ve connected to your post and feel – you know, this ain’t right …

    More power to social media for providing a much needed outlet for people to have a voice. Glassdoor.com has become a mandatory pit-stop for anyone on a job hunt and companies better take notice. Try as they may but organizations will no longer manage to ‘damage control’ until they actually address the ‘real issues’. Thanks for reminding us that we’re all in this together and that a little courage could go a long way.

    Cheers,
    Shereen

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    • You hit the nail on the head Shereen – you can no longer manage ‘damage control’. In fact, i dont think there will be such a thing in that respect in the future. As you point out, organisations will have to address the ‘real issues’ or damage will be done whether they like it or not. those that dont face up to the issues will definitely suffer long term – especially as now, at last, there are now proven links between good people practice/engagement and organisation success.

      Many thanks for your comment Shereen.

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