When Bosses Do This, It Means Disaster At Work – What To Do Instead
You have already seen it. The boss who insists that everything is fine while the employees grumble and think the exact opposite. It may present itself as a company-wide tone-deaf appeal about an urgent social issue.
In an age of employee activism and organizing, it is especially important that bosses and employees agree on how their companies should address important social issues that affect their employees.
The problem, however, is that it doesn’t seem to happen very often. And when it doesn’t, it’s a corporate mess waiting to happen.
According to leadership expert Megan Reitz, whose research focuses on how people interact in the workplace, there’s a major cause behind discord, what she calls the “optimism bubble.”
Simply put, an optimism bubble refers to the tendency of leaders to overestimate how comfortable their employees feel raising concerns at work, as Reitz explained in a September TED Talk. .
“As you get older, you overestimate how well other people express themselves. You overestimate your accessibility and you overestimate your listening skills,” Reitz said. “And all of that means you’re underestimating the strength of sentiment that might exist with some of your employees.”
A professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School, Reitz interviewed hundreds of activists and leaders over five years for a book on truth to power, called “Speak Up.”
One of the central elements of the optimism bubble is a phenomenon that Reitz calls “advantage blindness.” When you own the labels that convey status within a particular hierarchy — think CEO, director, and the like — you’re probably the last person to realize how that label can affect your accessibility, Reitz explained.
“In fact, it’s only when we don’t have these labels that we can kind of look at them and say, ‘My God, they make a difference in how people can express themselves here,'” she added.
So what can leaders do about it? Reitz has a simple four-point playbook to help employers better address their workers’ concerns about simmering social issues.
Leaders need to consistently ask relevant questions, Reitz said: “Are you a little detached? How do you know what your employees find important in their organization?”
The only way to really answer these questions is to listen, Reitz continued. “Don’t assume you know what matters,” she says.
There are plenty of tips on best listening practices for leaders, but Reitz pointed out that the most crucial element is “the understanding that it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be a little detached, and that you have to do a lot more work to really find what matters to employees.”
2. Reconsider your assumptions
The bubble of optimism, however, is only a piece of the cake. Throughout her research, Reitz asked thousands of people how they defined “activist” and “activism,” and she heard enough to know that these are incredibly heavy terms.
“We need to understand the assumptions and associations that we bring to activism, because of course that affects how we respond to it,” she said.
As an example, she cites her time on the board of a healthcare organization, where an employee was vocal about climate change, regularly criticizing the board’s efforts. ‘organization.
“It was really interesting, because some executives called him a troublemaker, [and] wanted to kind of get rid of him,” Reitz said. “But there were a few executives who saw him as a trailblazer, and actually a couple who wanted to invite him to the board to educate them.”
Take-out? What counts as activism depends on who defines it, and leaders need to acknowledge their assumptions so they can “respond with more awareness and more mindfulness,” Reitz said.
3. Inaction is not an option
Reitz stressed that “inaction is as political as action,” adding that when leaders say they are apolitical on pressing issues, it’s essentially an oxymoron.
While it would be nearly impossible for a boss to speak out on every societal issue in the news, Reitz said leaders should simply “make conscious, consistent and authentic choices about what [they] will take a stand on and what [they] won’t.”
This decision needs to be made in collaboration with stakeholders and, she added, “your employees are one of your key stakeholders there.”
4. Start a dialogue
Finally, leaders need to understand what employees have thought of their response to activist efforts so far — and chances are it isn’t as up to par as senior management would think. (Vague corporate platitudes like “listen and learn” probably don’t do the trick.)
Keeping the optimism bubble in check is a key piece of the puzzle, Reitz said, as is remembering that this type of dialogue is messy.
“It’s riddled with vulnerability, ambiguity, disagreement. That’s why leaders try so hard to avoid it,” Reitz said. “But you can’t avoid it anymore, it’s not a sustainable strategy. So we have to experiment much better, anticipate fallout, learn from mistakes.”
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