There are days when you hear a dozen times about the pace of change and how hard it is to keep up.  Then there are others when you wonder “Will the workplace ever evolve?”.  I had that sense recently.

Lessons from the Banking Crisis?

We are almost ten years on from the banking crisis.  Few would deny it was contributed to by irrational exuberance combined with an inability of those who foresaw problems to be able to raise them.
William Dudley, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, recently raised the question at a conference on reforming bank culture held at the New York Federal Reserve “When people speak up to point out potential conduct issues, how are they treated?”. I am guessing that on the back of the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal (among others in the sector still rumbling on) that the answer is not an unreserved “They are listened to and treated with respect”.

Research into Speaking Up

This came in the same week that the Harvard Business Review and the Cambridge Network both reported on ongoing research at Cambridge Judge Business School. The research is in the area of whether employees can really speak up in the workplace.  The journals note that:

“Many leaders want workers to ’speak up’ but their efforts are thwarted by abusive retribution waged by middle managers on those who do speak up.”

It was also noted that that leaders often fail “to implement policies and training to encourage free communication by workers and proper responses by middle managers”, and goes on to say that “while many leaders say they want to encourage employees to speak freely by offering new ideas, suggesting product improvements or calling out unethical behaviour, their company’s culture doesn’t foster such open communications.”

Still Only the Tip of the Iceberg

I said at the start of this article, that you get the feeling at times things will never change.  It is over 25 years since Sidney Yoshida popularised the “iceberg of ignorance” in 1989.  He ran a study which concluded that top management was only aware of 4% of the problems in a company, and department managers only 9% of the problems (so the tip of the iceberg) whereas front line staff knew 100% of the problems.

So 25 years after Yoshida highlighted what you may say is obvious – that front line staff are generally more aware of problems than central management, and nearly ten years after the banking crisis (with multiple crises in multiple sectors in between) it is still the norm to have a total disconnect between belief by senior management that staff should be able to speak freely and the ability in reality for staff to do so.  Sadly this does not just apply to problems but how organisations treat staff, how they treat stakeholders and can also extend to surfacing new ideas.

Ultimately this will inevitably change from a number of forces:

  1. As a result of regulation, which although carrying its own inertia, tries to amend behaviours.
  2. As a result of changes in the nature of employment and the ways people are employed with multiple career moves now far more likely.
  3. Through the influence of online tools such Glassdoor, which gives employees a good look into the organisation they may be joining and SpeakInConfidence which bring a technological solution to enabling communications and breaking down hierarchy.
  4. The speed with which a reputation can be damaged or totally destroyed via social media when organisations do get things wrong will further encourage positive change.

If you are part of senior management, what you should be asking is:

  • Are we really getting a clear, unfiltered view from our employees?
  • Are you really empowering them to speak up?
  • Are things truly where you believe?
  • If you aren’t, what could it be costing you and how will it benefit your competitors who get their first?

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