As managers, should we encourage our staff to speak up or not? You bet we should. Without ideas, innovation, and growth, is just impossible.
The other day I was running a program on leadership for a small group of people identified as having leadership potential. At the commencement of the program I asked the people to have a talk among themselves and come back with a list of issues they would like to be addressed in the seminar.
One group came back with the request that they would like to learn how to be more assertive. Now, that was a pretty interesting question because I had never been asked that question before.
My immediate response was that assertive people tend to put other people off-side. We tend to react badly to people who are constantly asserting themselves without considering the views of others. However, on digging deeper, it became apparent that it was not this type of assertiveness that was of concern to the people in the seminar.
What they were talking about is something that most of us worry about, and it is having the confidence to speak up. How many times are we in a situation when someone asks a question or a subject comes up and we think we know the answer or something about the subject but we don’t say anything for fear of being wrong and making a fool of ourselves?
The question triggered a whole series of complicated issues and out of the discussion came some interesting issues which relate to growth. I told them the story of Captain Scott who, in preparation for his journey to the South Pole the following summer decided to take provisions to 80° south. He had horses to pull the provisions, but when they got to 79° south he decided not to go further because he wanted to save the failing horses for the next summer expedition.
The person responsible for the horses, a Laurence Oates, had huge experience. He said that the horses would not make it back to base and it would be better to take them to 80° and leave the supplies there and then shoot the horses so that their flesh could be used as food for the expedition to the Pole. Captain Scott ignored that advice and Oates was reported to have said: “I believe sir you will live to regret that decision.”
On his return from the Pole the following season, Scott ran out of food and supplies at 80° south, a degree short of the supplies he had placed at 79° the previous summer. He and his team perished one degree short of salvation.
From all of the records, it seems that Oates never again offered advice to Scott. It also seems that after having his advice rejected, Oates did not press the point. One then wonders, “if only Scott had listened to his expert”. Or the other question, “if only Oates had been more forceful in putting his view point”.
There are two sides of the coin of assertiveness. A person is more inclined to put a point of view if he or she believes that a leader or manager will listen to what they have to say and less inclined to put a point of view if they believe they will not be listened to.
Scott was a naval man through and through, and insisted on naval discipline. He had to make the decisions and others had to follow. His expedition ended in disaster.
Growth is dependent on innovation, and innovation is a product of many ideas of which a few will turn out to be good. However, without encouraging people to constantly come up with new and innovative ideas, there will be this reluctance on the part of the people in the organisation to “be assertive”. They will take the view that there is no point in putting their point of view because no one will listen.
As a result they become mechanistic tools to perform operations rather than intelligent beings to participate in the wonderful process of evolutionary development. Evolution is not a progressive process of continual improvement but one of trial and error. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.
So we concluded in our little seminar that for people to be more assertive it is necessary for management to encourage people to have a point of view, and no matter how irrelevant it might be, to speak up and challenge others to either find flaws or to explore possibilities.
If management tends to assume the responsibility for making all the decisions and insists that the troops merely carry out the instructions, innovation will be hard to come by as will growth.
Once management creates the environment in which people have the opportunity to express their opinion, then the troops need to have the courage to do so without worrying whether or not they might be making a fool of themselves. More often than not their ideas will have merit and if they don’t immediately have appeal, it is amazing how good ideas often emerge from ideas that were initially considered stupid.
We decided then that it was worth the time exploring this issue of assertiveness.