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It’s becoming more and more common to hear of companies failing to listen to unpopular views and suffering the consequences, form the Post Office refusing to accept that their IT system was wrong and pursuing criminal charges against their employees, to the trial of Elizabeth Holmes for fraud over the Theranos scandal in the US (can you guess I’ve become a fan of podcasts?).

The one thread that runs through all of this is that employees knew about the problems but were shouted down by senior management, when the employees had far more knowledge of what was going on. I have come across this in several guises. The first is the employer who doesn’t want to announce that there may be redundancies, because nobody in the firm is aware that there are problems. In truth I have never come across a redundancy exercise that wasn’t expected by at least some of the staff, and the fact that it was announced reduced the amount of uncertainty because at least the leadership looked like they were doing something about the problems that everyone was aware of. The second is where an organisation ignores complaints of sexual harassment against a director, moves the director sideways and assumes the problem is solved only to find themselves plastered across the front pages of the papers (sorry, social media I’m showing my age there). The underlying point is if you ignore or just step around a problem, it can quickly turn grey, grow a trunk and get big flappy ears

There are a number of theories about the motivation for such an attitude from senior management, my favourites are:

  1. The loss of face in accepting they made a decision
  2. The frustration of having to go back to an issue they thought they had already resolved.

I have never had a problem with the first as I have learned that getting something wrong is part of the human condition and owning up to it is a sign of strength not stupidity (usually!).

My struggle is with the second. Sometimes I must work on something that does not interest me or feels like an unnecessary distraction. Having completed that work, the last thing I want to do is go back to it.

The only solution I have found is to make sure I listen to what employees think before I announce my decision, on most occasions the answers are already there. I’m not talking about some formal bureaucratic structure, orgainsed by HR and bounded round with formal action plans, gant charts and all the paraphernalia of management consultancy. I’m talking about managing by “walking about a bit”, leaving your door open, listening and respecting opinions even if you don’t agree with them.

One thing to be aware of though, and this is another lesson from my early years in management, if it all goes wrong, it is still your fault because you took the decision and consultation is not a process for avoiding blame.