Give People a Voice

There was a time when leadership was viewed as an authoritative role that looked something like this:  I am in charge, I know what needs to be done, I tell you what to do, and you do it.  The assumption was that the leader was the one who really knew what was best, so he talked and the followers listened.  Classrooms used to operate the same way, when teachers would lecture and students would listen and take notes; but it was a very one-sided dialogue.  Studies of leadership now recognize that this is not effective leadership, and that now we need to be willing to give people a voice in the process.  Heifetz and Laurie found that “giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn” (p. 69). However, that doesn’t mean that it’s no longer a struggle for us to do, and so it is still something that we need to intentionally cultivate in ourselves and in our leadership.

A couple of important concepts have helped me to recognize this truth.  One was the realization that many people know much more than I do about many things, and there are many things that others can do better than I. I don’t know everything, and I am not the most skilled at everything.  Therefore, I can be more effective when I tap into the knowledge and skills of others, but that, in turn, means giving them an opportunity to contribute.  A second truth was the realization that those who are closest to a situation – those on the ground floor – generally have the greatest understanding of what is taking place.  The people actually doing the job often have the best understanding of what works and what does not.  The result, then, is that I have learned that I need to give people a voice, especially in the process of implementing change.  If people are given the ability to speak into the process, they will in turn take more ownership of it and will be more involved and more committed.

So, knowing that we need to give people a voice, there are at least three principles that are necessary in order for it to successfully begin to happen:

1)    Include those who will be impacted.  This may include those who will be affected by the results of the change (like customers), those who have to implement the change (like the ground-floor employees), those who have to lead the change (like the managers), and those who are working to determine and design the change (like the leadership).  All of them will be affected in some way by decisions and change, so if they are not given an opportunity to speak or contribute, they are much more like to resist and react.  As Peter Drucker explains, “Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood.  Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from their colleagues – superiors, subordinates, and peers” (p. 31).  It is dangerous to leadership to impose a strategic plan or to implement initiatives without first giving all of those groups a voice in the process.

2)    Make it safe for people to talk. Years ago, when my children were little, I learned that one of the best things that parents could do to encourage stronger communication from their children in the teenage years was to make it safe for them to talk. If I react harshly, or with ridicule or condemnation, they will learn that it is not safe to share, and will shut down.  The same thing happens in our organizations if we respond negatively when others try to give input.  We need to remember that “the voices from below are usually not as articulate as one would wish, . . . [but] buried inside a poorly packaged interjection may lie an important intuition that needs to be teased out and considered. To toss it out for its bad timing, lack of clarity or seemingly unreasonableness is to lose potentially valuable information and discourage a potential leader in the organization” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 69).  It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to create a safe environment “for diverse groups to talk to one another about the challenges facing them, to frame and debate issues, and to clarify the assumptions behind competing perspectives and values” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 64).  If it is not safe to speak, they won’t.

3)    Listen and validate.  My wife has the gift of empathy, but I do not, and so over the years she has helped me to learn how important it is to make people feel validated.  I have realized, by putting it into practice, that when people feel validated, they are much more receptive; and, vice versa, when they don’t feel validated, they are much more defensive.  As Seth Godin says in Tribes, “People want to be sure you heard what they said – they’re less focused on whether or not you do what they said” (2008, p. 128). It is not enough to simply listen, but I must also include a response that makes people feel heard and understood.  This means, “listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker . . . [therefore], spend time trying to understand others’ perspectives, listening with an open mind and without judgment” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge, pp. 185-186).

I will be a more effective leader when others are able to contribute.  They will bring knowledge, experience, different perspectives, important questions, and an understanding of real-life implications, and so it makes sense that they need to be allowed and encouraged to speak up.  Therefore they need to have a voice.  And for them to have voice, I have to provide an environment that lets it happen.  Include them.  Make it safe.  Listen and validate what they have to say. Give people a voice.

(Look for more thoughts on this in an upcoming Leadership Lessons from the Bible post later this month, taken out of an example from the leadership of Ezra)

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., and Senge, P. M. (2011). “In Praise of the Incomplete Leaders,” HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Drucker, P. F. (2011). “What Makes an Effective Executive,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us. Portfolio: New York, NY.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

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