Sssh! The leader is listening. - What happens to us when our leader is in the room?

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Gemma Toner

Written by Gemma Toner

Sssh! The leader is listening. - What happens to us when our leader is in the room?

The power of sharing our Little Voices.

Learning and development workshops – there is something about the corporate classroom that shines a bright light on workplace dynamics. I have delivered countless workshops over the years, in a multitude of different organisations, and one recurring dynamic seems to unfold more often than not. The power senior leaders and line-managers hold to intrinsically effect the contribution made in the room by their direct-reports.    

Take this example. In a workshop I delivered recently, my group and I agreed share our Little Voices – our private internal dialogue that we rarely share with others but has the immense power to shape our actions and behaviours. We all seemed to acknowledge that it was an extremely useful, if brave, development exercise. It gave others a much-needed window into each delegates reality, their concerns and biases. The group were generous at sharing their own Little Voices and generous at listening to those of others. That is when only their peers were in the room. But, enter their leader. Everything changed.

 

Leader in. Contribution Out.

It’s great to have a leader so committed to their people, their own development and the strategy of the business that they want to come along to or participate in a workshop. Sometimes they’re really busy and can only join us part way through, sometimes they’re present from the start. In any case,  something strange occurs when this happens.

It’s a weird experience to witness a bunch of people who are driven, dynamic and intelligent, and who have all been full of ideas and eager to speak fall eerily silent and begin to exchange nervous glances across a crowded room when their leader arrives.

I don’t think this is because leaders are evil, malevolent creatures that beat people with sticks and make their people cower in fear.  I think it’s genuinely because globally there is an unspoken etiquette about what we are ‘allowed’ to say in front of people we perceive as ‘more important’ than us. And sometimes we fear the consequences of speaking freely.

 

A fear of being judged.

My guess is that this fear goes back to our school days when we were made to feel inadequate or just downright stupid when we got ‘the wrong answer’. And we are convinced that, like our teachers, our leaders are listening to us and judging us based on our ability to give ‘the right’ one.

So, typically I stand in the room, having prepared the leader for what will inevitably ensue. The leader sits there, fully aware of the fact that their presence has shifted the context for many of the attendees. And, as expected, they are greeted with silence. Or very minimal input.

Some accept it.

Some find it frustrating.

Some enjoy it.

You see, depending on the personality of the leader, and the culture or employment law of the country I find myself in, people often see sharing their Little Voices as rude or believe their leader will see them as rude. Sometimes they see it as culturally inappropriate. And at worst, career limiting.

Outside the room attendees spend many a happy hour over coffee or lunch, or over a meal and drinks (which I have personally witnessed) with colleagues freely opining on how the leader should recognise and use their talents more, how the leader should do things differently and how much more successful they would be if only the leader would be open to their ideas. They indulge themselves in a dramatic ‘us and them’ dynamic.  Us, the workers and them, the people who tell us how to work.

And yet, when gifted the opportunity to share. And the appropriate tool to do it with. Most people say nothing!

We say that context is decisive, so I wonder that if we decide to relate to each other differently, we can find our voices again. And then speak our Little Voices.

 

Commitment to speak up. 

What if we decided to relate to each other, not as Leaders and staff, but as a bunch of people committed to a common goal?  People who depend on each other and will support each other to achieve breakthrough success. People who can really talk to each other.

What if we relate to each other just as people?

We tried this out recently, and I was amazed at what happened.

Suddenly it was like a barrier had disappeared.  The dialogue resumed. The quality of the conversation changed radically, with people speaking as individuals interested in a shared outcome.

The listening in the room shifted – people assumed support and understanding from the leader, rather than judgement and negative consequences. Concepts and ideas were openly explored and inquired into with the leader, rather than around them. Suggestions were sourced from commitment to success, rather than crafted around what they had assumed the leader wanted to hear them say, or the ‘party line’ people felt they were expected to follow. Clear requests were made of each other, with a chance to truthfully discuss them in depth, when before there had only been annoyance at unfulfilled expectations. Actions were agreed on and timelines were set.  Things were in momentum.

At dinner that night, people were far more relaxed and the prevailing commentary of unspoken views in the classroom that had seemed so loud just the night before had all but gone.

We often say it is who you are being that makes the difference and I have to say that if everyone makes the decision to uncover, set and maintain the context of shared commitment from the outset, this dynamic of ‘Sssh! the leader is listening’ shifts to become ‘Great! The leader is listening!’ -  and I guarantee, you will be surprised at what you can achieve!

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