Can you stop employees saying what they think you want to hear?

Business has had its fair share of leaders blinded by hubris as the recent events surrounding Mike Ashley of Sports Direct and Sir Philip Green of the Arcadia Group have shown.

So it’s not surprising that, in an Ipsos Mori poll earlier this year, only 35 per cent of respondents said they trusted business leaders, compared to the 89 per cent who trusted doctors.

This lack of trust and feeling that the bosses “aren’t listening” are major reasons why so many employees are not engaged with their work. Technology company Cisco found that a shocking 86 per cent of employees worldwide are either “disengaged” (generally lacking motivation) or “actively disengaged” (unhappy and unproductive). In the UK, this disengagement is costing business around £52bn-£70bn a year.

Of course, there are many CEOs and senior managers who work hard to avoid this very situation recognising that an engaged and valued workforce is happier, more productive and delivers better customer service.

There’s a move towards a more collaborative, inclusive and transparent management style and two-way internal communications. Many companies are taking the lead from the US and introducing “town hall” meetings or “fireside chats” (one-to-one catch-ups) as opportunities for staff to make their voice heard.

But what are the practicalities of these events? They can only work if employees can be candid; but how do you encourage this honesty if the natural reflex is to second guess what the boss wants to hear?

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Successive studies have shown our tendencies to follow the crowd, even if a leader or boss isn’t present. Consider how you choose music to download. Are you more likely to choose a song that has had thousands of downloads, or a song from the same band with very few?

Or suppose there’s an election coming up and all of your friends are posting favourable stories about a candidate whose policies you dislike. In fact, you’re a passionate supporter of the opposing candidate? It’s likely you will decide to keep quiet – and the Spiral of Silence begins.

This often happens during business meetings. Many people may disagree with what is being said, but they keep it to themselves. In the face of this silence, fewer and fewer speak up and more feel their opinion doesn’t matter.

One of the first rules of better workforce engagement is, therefore, to enable everybody – not just the office extrovert – to contribute and make their views known, without fear of ridicule from their peers or retribution from their managers come pay review time.

Many companies are now turning to technology to help them do this. For example, some are using updated versions of the polling technologies used for larger meetings and conferences internally.

Nowadays these take the form of an app, easily downloadable on an employee’s own smartphone, which enables users to ask questions and vote on issues anonymously during a company meeting or smaller get-togethers.

It’s important to monitor morale and any discontent, yes. But also, on a more positive note, the same methods are great for sharing stories and capturing ideas too.

Businesses that regard this feedback as valuable data – just as they would customer intelligence – will avoid falling into the communications gap and enjoy the benefits of an engaged workforce.

Peter Eyre is marketing director at Lumi

There are ten things UK office employees do to waste 12.5 working hours each week.

Image: Shutterstock

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