Sunday, May 13, 2007

Speaking Up

Maybe I'm a consultant because I say things when I shouldn't. Frankly, that's what you want in a consultant - you pay them to tell you the truth. There are surely engagements where you get paid to tell someone something they want to hear - probably mostly as a subject matter expert in a legal proceeding (I'm sure I have offended a lot of experts now). But really, wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone just told you what they think and feel? Perhaps that is naive.... but it's what I think.

I'm not sure exactly why people confide in me; perhaps it is because people learn that if they ask me something I will tell them what I think. I won't be offensive or suicidal, but if it is relevant, I'll answer honestly. If it is different than the party line, I'll explain the party line and it's rationale, and I'll support it and commit to it, but I won't express a point of view as my own that isn't.

James Detert at Penn State writes in the May HBR that employee's failure to speak up is a result of their risk/reward perception. Perhaps this is obvious but it means that they have to believe that saying something might result in a positive change, and that they won't be harmed by it. You can reinforce their confidence by being a change agent on their behalf -- step out, take the arrows for them, and stir things up - make something happen, even if you burn some political capital along the way. If you are successful and you shield them from any consequences, they'll use you for their sounding board. As an employee in some organizations, you might get shot for doing this. But if the change is worth making, and it's good for the organization, how can you not do it? If your organization can't do the right thing, is it where you want to stay anyway?

The other thing Professor Detert writes is that organizations develop implicit untested assumptions. I have seen this as well and it is the leader's job to seek these out and be the "myth buster". I had a management coach, Alan Perey, who was particularly good at demonstrating how to do this. It kind of goes just like a behavioral interview - for each statement made by the person you are working with, you have to decide if it is fact/experience based or the output of a model or theory. In short, is it fact, or is it opinion? And ask additional clarifying questions to hone in on that: "What evidence do you have....".

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