Freedom to speak up – managers’ challenge of listening?

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Remember what was important about leadership in mid-February? Sir Robert Francis published the ’Freedom to speak up’ report about the reporting culture at the National Health Service (NHS). This report has tragic roots in the NHS with harm for real patients and real employees.

The fascinating bit

You think, oh, UK and health care focus only! Actually not! This provides leadership lessons for every manager to improve quality, services, products – stretching managers’ thinking and practices.

The report recommends activities to make speaking up in the NHS less stressful, basically the norm. Two of many suggestions: Developing a ‘Culture of raising concerns’ where voicing issues becomes normality. Creating a ‘Culture of visible leadership’ where all managers welcome and encourage employees to raise issues. Both great recommendations. Want to read academic stuff? Look out for literature about ‘voice’.

Let’s look to the other side – managers’ challenge of listening

Managers are seen as a bottleneck. Sounds familiar? Same as in other corporate scandals. But how can managers engage in behaviours mentioned above? This is not an easy, just given task.

We are happy to claim leadership roles. We like it when people see us as leaders. Does raising issues then feel like someone challenges your authority? Employees know that and think: It is risky. That’s why raising concerns is difficult. Actual facts compete with the status we believe to have.

However, as a manager, listening and getting challenged may not weaken the relationships and influence we have. Quite the contrary. Relationships may be more durable when we can voice concerns – they show what really happens in our jobs.

People at the top – important

In the last post I mentioned that leadership is everyone’s job. Hold your horses if you thought senior managers are less important. They lead differently – not less. Role modelling and creating systems for receiving concerns becomes crucial – visible to the many. Years ago the Liechtenstein based company Hilti had a tiring but helpful motto and process – for all ranks: ‘Confront the brutal facts!’

Try this.

Think back to the last time a colleague has voiced a concern with you about the unit’s performance, processes, or services. Will the person come back to you with a similar issue? If yes, why? If not, why not? Why don’t you ask the person?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

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5 comments

  1. Yes, but who’s in charge of the NHS? The managers or the consultants. Until you change the matrix, you’re still going for find a culture of fear where people won’t speak up or out despite the Whistleblower legislation.

    1. I agree with Julian on this. I think the NHS, despite being one of the most studied organisations in the UK seems not to learn anything from several recommendations given it…

      Julian, what do you mean by ‘consultants’? Do you mean the in-house clinical consultants who are always at loggerheads with managers or you mean the external consultants who are constantly around in suits offering the NHS all sort of ideas? Whichever way, the matrix needs re-examining. As it is now, leadership in the NHS is still a big challenge.

      1. There might be a structural challenge built in with matrix organisations, dual lines of reporting, etc. However, when we look at the practice speaking up I sense that independent of the actual reporting structures we will find organisations where it works or does not work. I reckon there are other factors such as what the leadership climate in an organisation expects from managers, what is endorsed and role modeled by senior managers on either side manager or consultants, do we train actual practices of receiving and doing upwards inspiration that might come into play.

  2. There might be a structural challenge built in with matrix organisations, dual lines of reporting, etc. However, when we look at the practice speaking up I sense that independent of the actual reporting structures we will find organisations where it works or does not work. I reckon there are other factors such as what the leadership climate in an organisation expects from managers, what is endorsed and role modeled by senior managers on either side manager or consultants, do we train actual practices of receiving and doing upwards inspiration that might come into play.

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