From Volkswagen recalls to Wells Fargo’s fake accounts, there’s been no shortage of corporate scandals in recent months and many employees have been left wondering if their company is really as honest as it claims – so just what can HR professionals do to convince them?
Ben Bryant is a professor of leadership at the Institute for Management Development, he says recognizing the symptoms of mistrust if the first step to turning things around.
“[The symptoms] are often seen in how communications takes place,” says Bryant, who also holds the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership.
Further, if teams regularly run out of time for discussion and debate because presentations are taking too long, it may be because time isn’t being left for them.
“Are executives simply pretending to listen to or build on each other’s points of view, but actually only pausing long enough to find another opportunity to speak?” he asks. “Are conversations repetitive with executives restating their points of view several times?”
According to Bryant, it would be easy to mistake this behaviour for polite and respectful whereas in reality, it’s an absence of trust which is covertly driving the discussion.
“It is common to find an absence of trust at senior levels of an organization because colleagues tend to avoid the real issues by defensively shutting down emotionally, not listening to others, and by creating a wall that prevents the sharing of information,” he says. “Being able to distinguish politeness from respect is the first step in identifying an absence of trust.”
Once employers have identified the issue, Bryant says it’s important to talk about it but this step can be met with some resistance.
“In teams where excessive politeness is the norm, this will be difficult,” he admits. “People may try to initiate uncomfortable dialogue at the end of a meeting, but dialogue is unlikely to get challenging at that time. No one wants to leave a meeting on bad terms, when there are low levels of trust.”
As a solution, Bryant says difficult conversations need a defined space and time and should be initiated in the middle or even at the beginning of a meeting.
“Sometimes moving to another room, and agreeing on a time limit will facilitate and contain a difficult conversation,” he says. “Different spaces can break the scripted and polite conversations that often emerge among executives.”
Encouraging transparency at a senior level is also important but Bryant says this is about more than just financials and future decisions.
“Transparency to most senior executives means allowing others to see information that is otherwise held privately. However, a deeper level of transparency is about actively sharing and revealing thoughts, emotions and beliefs that flow through our mind.”
According to Bryant, senior execs are usually skilled at keeping these things private – and often believe it’s the right thing to do – but that’s not necessarily the case.
“By being open and transparent about irritations, frustrations, competitiveness or anger, executives can understand how they are restraining the dialogue,” he says. “For example, it may be helpful to say ‘I felt no one was listening to me’ to shift the conversation. Suppressing emotions is delusional. It can trick us into thinking that we or others are not experiencing any discomfort.”
Unsurprisingly, Bryant stresses the importance of “selected thoughts and feelings” at this stage – “we cannot disclose everything we think or feel - nothing would get done, and it would lead to chaos,” he says.
Another form of transparency involves giving feedback. For example, “I felt irritated with you when you said…” or “I felt angry when you were dominating the conversation”.
“Such feedback is difficult to find in executive ranks, especially on polite teams,” says Bryant. “On the surface, feedback can be seen as a personal attack, and as such it is often avoided. There can also be a tacit collusion between executives not to criticize each other publicly.”
The final step, according to Bryant, is keeping difficult conversations ongoing and continuous.
“Difficult conversations are often replayed in our own minds for many hours after they are over. ‘I should have said…’ While executives will need to move on and get back to the task, if one person or if a relationship is left ‘bruised’ or ‘raw’ it is better to acknowledge this and then move on rather than pretend nothing has happened,” he says.
“It is also wise to come back to the conversation a day or a week later. As time passes, if expressed, most difficult feelings pass. By coming back to the issue, you are signalling that you are still ‘with’ the person, and not avoiding or dismissing them. You are showing them that they can trust you with the difficult issues, not just the polite ones.”
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