Listen to the marginalised voices – Lessons from Trump and Brexit

perspectives Jan 31, 2017

“Managers at all levels are often unwilling – or unable – to address their competing perspectives collectively. They frequently avoid paying attention to issues that disturb them.” – Ron Heifetz

The Inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the USA took place amidst a public still coming to grips with his election victory. While the press and many sections of the public were surprised, people such as Michael Moore predicted the election outcome.

Moore and Trump’s view of what occurred are very similar: Many people across America, particularly in areas of economic hardship, felt marginalised and unlistened to. They also felt they were not getting their fair slice of the pie, and not being treated with basic dignity. What Trump offered is to break this long cycle of apparent neglect by paying attention to their perspective.

This insight has significant implications for organisations going through transformations that lead to shifts in power, authority, and stability inside the organisation.

Many organisations going through organisational change are neither seeking to hear from the marginalised voices, nor paying attention to issues that disturb them. Instead, leaders and change “managers” often reward and listen to voices that tell them what they want to hear.

While organisations are not democracies where senior leaders are elected by the workers, those within the organisation can register their pleasure/displeasure in various ways:

  • leaving the organisation
  • absenteeism; increasing sick leave, eliminating discretionary effort, and not showing up to anything which isn’t compulsory
  • presenteeism; showing up with no energy or initiative for the work at hand
  • subtle (or overt) resistance to power and authority in the organisation, potentially escalating to involve third parties, or even the media
  • the water cooler conversations; spreading dissent and disconnection
  • engagement and culture surveys; people who comment on surveys typically feel strongly about their organisation – either strongly positive OR strongly negative

It’s important to note that when people become actively disengaged, this also has an impact on customer experience and organisational reputation.

What can be done?

Two principles of adaptive learning and leadership central to our culture work are articulated by Heifetz: Maintain disciplined attention and protect the voices from below.

1. Maintain disciplined attention:
Rather than silencing or suppressing the conflict that diversity can bring, allow shared understanding to deepen by asking questions and exploring the insights into different mindsets, assumptions, values and perspectives.

Note that many organisations set up forums for people to discuss their concerns. However, these often fail to convince people they are genuinely being listened to. Even worse, they can create cynicism when nothing changes, unrealistic promises are made, or any alternative views are quickly shut down. What is the alternative?

2. Protecting the voices from below:
Despite the widespread acceptance of the notion of diversity, original voices inside organisations routinely get dismissed and suppressed. Original voices are often not articulate or politically correct. The role of leadership is to provide a space for all voices, especially those that may not be politically correct.

Questions we often ask our clients include:

  • As a leader and team member, how can you encourage the voices from below to speak out? How can you create a safe place for their view to be expressed?
  • Who has represented the voices from below in your team and the wider organisation? How were they treated and what message did that send?
  • Have you ever felt like the voice from below? How were you encouraged or silenced? What can you do to ensure others feel safe to voice their opinions?

Everyone has a right to be heard, yet not everyone can get their way – the final outcome should reflect the best ideas that emerge from a shared perspective rather than the loudest or most powerful voice, AND small, agreed actions should be followed up immediately.

We wonder how the results of Brexit and the recent US election would have been different if leaders in the UK and USA had practised deeper levels of disciplined attention around issues including inequality and economic disparity. We wonder how the results of many organisational transformations would be different if organisations maintained disciplined attention and protected the marginalised voices.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, the next Adaptive Cultures Workshop is being held in Sydney on February 9th.

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