How to get them talking: Creating a culture where people speak up

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Too many great ideas are silenced by organisational hierarchies. Professor Arnaud Chevallier reveals how to create a culture where people speak up.

The hippo is a dangerous and dominant beast. Approach it at your peril: the 1.5 tonne Hippopotamus amphibius is the deadliest large mammal on Earth. Lions and tigers are mere pussycats in comparison.

In the corporate world, the hippo’s namesake shares similar characteristics. The highest paid person’s opinion (Hippo) often reacts badly to challenge, or crushes others’ ideas under its colossal weight. The result is undesirable consensus: ideas, constructive dissent and progressive thinking are lost to hierarchical groupthink.

When my International Institute of Management Development colleague Professor Albrecht Enders and I researched our new book Solvable, we discovered that effective decision-making is a rarity in business.

Much of the malaise stems from an inability of leaders to properly explore alternative solutions to problems: a lack of meaningful engagement with our teams means great resolutions are often missed in favour of one or two individuals’ instinctive responses – which are frequently suboptimal.

To combat this ‘exploration deficit’, we need to create a culture in organisations where people are both empowered to speak up, and we as leaders are adept in extracting the key messages from their testimonies.

There are several strategies towards this aim. Here are just some of the powerful approaches we explore in the book.

  • Banish hippos

If you are the most senior person in the team, consider staying out of the idea-generation process altogether. Not because you won’t have good ideas, but because your presence might limit the creativity of other team members. If you are not the hippo, identify her elsewhere and consider removing her from the process.

  • Invite dissent

Appointing a devil’s advocate is a powerful way to counter groupthink. Under this technique, a selection of colleagues are asked to adopt a position opposite to the consensus – regardless of their personal opinions. This creates a positive environment for constructive dissent.

  • Mix it up

If we recruit in our own image, homogeneity of opinion – groupthink – becomes more likely. Diversity takes two forms: identity diversity (age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) and functional diversity (the different ways people represent and solve problems). Research shows that teams with functional diversity perform better. Strive to compile diverse teams.

  • Harvesting ideas

By quietening hippos, appointing devil’s advocates, and maximising diversity, we create a benign space where people feel safe to share their opinions. Yet this is only part of the challenge. Once ideas are thriving, we must find efficient ways to harvest them.

Better engagement fosters better decision-making, but more engagement can be counterproductive as it can swallow up valuable time.

The key is to categorise your consultees carefully. Which colleagues are likely to propose interesting ideas? Which are crucial to the successful execution of the project? And which simply want to vent?

Give more importance to those colleagues who are likely to bring value to your project and less to those whose preferred role is complaint. Engaging doesn’t have to happen in a one-size-fits-all fashion: to important stakeholders, you may confer veto power whereas to other you may confer a vote or just a chance to voice their opinion.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse seniority with ingenuity. The point of the steps outlined above is to soften hierarchies so ideas can emerge from all parts of the business. Many junior colleagues generate brilliant ideas while more senior stakeholders – sometimes the hippo himself – are lacking in them.

At the core of Solvable is the FrED model: Frame –Explore –Decide.

Each of those three elements is an equal partner – if one component is weak, it is almost impossible to compensate with strength in the other two.

That’s why effective exploration matters. Too often the hippo crushes ideas from within, groupthink develops – and we fail to properly Explore.

Exploration through engagement requires an appropriate environment ­and appropriate techniques that encourage people to speak up. In particular, create a safe space where people feel comfortable disagreeing and making “dumb” suggestions.

Assemble a team with diverse perspectives and complementary expertise. Have vigorous debates ahead of the decision. Encourage dissent to combat groupthink and convergence of opinions.

Taking a few steps can unleash the potential in the myriad voices in our organisations – and get you to reap the rewards.

About the author

Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at The International Institute for Management Development (IMD). His new book with co-author and IMD colleague Professor Albrecht Enders Solvable is out now.

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