My father once told me about a humorous meeting when he worked at Exxon. The Division Manager was presenting the quarterly results to the Vice President. This was pre-PowerPoint when presentations were done on plastic slides shown on an overhead projector. The Division Manager displayed a Human Resource graph which showed employee morale declining. The Vice President exclaimed, “There is no morale problem!” The Division Manager quickly said, “Next slide please.”
My earliest recollection of an employee confronting senior management came during an internal Town Hall meeting. Senior managers made presentations about the state of the business, then opened the floor for questions. A young female geologist raised her hand and asked, “Why are there no female managers?” One senior manager stared down at her and said, “Well, young lady, perhaps someday you might get the opportunity to be a manager – if you are lucky enough. Next question.” She was very courageous, but her question probably did not help her career.
By the time I was promoted into management, corporate culture was evolving. Employees changed jobs more frequently and experienced workers were regularly hired. The workforce was more diverse — gender, racial, and social. Competitive forces were stronger and the ability for a business to survive without creative changes diminished. These three conditions caused employees, especially younger ones, to publicly challenge management decisions.
When I worked in The Hague (NL), I went to a Town Hall where the President made a presentation and answered employee questions. One Dutch employee grilled him about his recently published compensation package and reminded the President about what he had said when they were younger: “You were against high managerial salaries when we worked together at Pernis and now you receive one. Why have you changed your mind?” I witnessed the President openly debate with his former technical colleague.
In The Atlantic article (August 2, 2021) titled How the Bobos Broke America, David Brooks writes: “Every once in a while, in times of transformation, a revolutionary class comes along and disrupts old structures, introduces new values, opens up economic and cultural chasms. In the 19th century, it was the bourgeoisie, the capitalist merchant class. In the latter part of the 20th century, as the information economy revved up and the industrial middle class hollowed out, it was X [born from 1965 to 1980] people.” Access to information and the ease of mobility has made managerial positions less hierarchical. Power has eroded; unquestioningly following higher authorities has tilted towards individuals of any age with strategic leadership skills.
In a Financial Times opinion (August 29, 2021), It is Time for Candid Conversations at Work, Stefan Stern, a visiting professor at The Business School (University of London), believes in the importance of “establishing ‘psychological safety’ at work.” Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, defines this term as “a shared belief that an environment is safe for interpersonal risk.” Binna Kandola, a business psychology consultant, advises leaders to share their anxieties about having candid conversations. “Be clear that your intent is good, even if you may say things that land badly. By the way — all those anxieties you are feeling? That’s what minorities feel too. We have just got to get used to new things. We are going to have to discuss our way out of this, there is no other choice.”
In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan approached King David, the ruler of Israel who had committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed her husband Uriah. Instead of directly confronting David, Nathan asked David to rule on a legal case which paralleled David’s crime. David is challenged with the truth and remorsefully confesses his guilt. Nathan courageously used a savvy tactic to expose the fallacies of a powerful man. Powerful people are imperfect, just like you and me.
Power can sprout pride which reduces the opportunity for listening to others. The Apostle Paul took a different approach. He chose to humbly follow Christ and speak of his weakness. “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:28–29 NRSV)
Paul Mitchell, a former Michigan Congressman who died recently from cancer, understood the need for candid conversations. “Learn to understand people and judge less and love more and let’s have less hatred. It’s destroying our society.” Candid conversations can be seen as either disrespectful or avenues for productive learning. How leaders respond to these conversations matters. Those who are servant leaders listen, respond in love, and encourage productive dialogues.