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Supporting organisations to bridge the gap between strategy and action at moments of change, making sense and shaping conversations with Big Pictures.


How easy is it to speak up in command and control cultures?

julian burton



Do you recognise this situation? Have you been in a meeting like this recently where you really thought your boss’s new idea would never work but to say that would risk your career prospects?  Or maybe the relationship didn't feel safe enough for a candid conversation,  or you had a bad experience with a previous manager who didn’t like being challenged? Or even, like many people, you were taught not to question authority.

An alternative view from the other side of this relationship [and that might be a different picture if it was painted from the leader's point of view] might be that you really wanted to test your thinking with one of your team and tried to make it easier for them to speak openly about what they thought, yet you sense they may have just paid lip service to your idea.

This situation may be typical for many people on both sides of the table, and we hear that many organisations have a strong intent to work on this issue and move away from top down cultures towards more collaborative ways of working. Yet recent research by Megan Reitz and John Higgins suggests that most leaders are genuinely blind to the fact of just how difficult it is for others to speak up to them. 

It doesn't help this situation that the behaviours and skills that need to be learnt to develop better relationships and work more collaboratively are still called “soft skills”!  Stephen Covey in his book, The 3rd Alternative, sums this up very well; “the soft stuff is the new hard stuff”.

Growing the relationships that can start to dissolve some of the negative effects of the sort of power relations that get in the way of real collaboration may be the most difficult thing for anyone to learn at work. Yet can organisations afford not to focus on this, as surely it's the key that unlocks successful culture change and agility?