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Permission to Speak – Leadership Blog – Kelly Vandever Interviews Dr. Denise Cumberland on CEOs Keeping in Touch with Frontline Employees



Permission to Speak

Leadership Video Blog & Podcast

Hosted by Leadership Communications Expert Kelly Vandever

Permission to Speak is the video blog and podcast that loiters at the intersections of leaders who want their people to speak up, technology that facilitates connections, and results that serve an organization’s higher purpose.

Our guest for this episode:  Dr. Denise Cumberland

Topics discussed:

– Denise discusses her leadership research based on the show Undercover Boss.

– Denise interviewed 13 of the CEOs that had been on the television series

– How could the scandals like GM’s ignition scandal and VA scandal, how could they happen and these leaders not know

– CEOs on Undercover Boss have no editorial control on what is broadcast on the show.

– The questions Denise asked the CEOs include…

– What did you learn?

– Why did you do this?

– Would you do it again?

– Did they think being undercover was necessary?  Or could they have just one in as the CEO and learned and heard the same things?

– What did you do with the information learned on the show?  What changes did you make in your organization, if any?

– Denise’s co-author for the study was Meera Alagaraja

– The CEOs knew there was a certain degree of risk with being on the show but that there was also the opportunity for high visibility

– All but one CEO said they really wanted to know what employees really thought, they had a desire to learn about their own organization

– The main thing all the CEOs learned was how hard and demanding their employees’ jobs are

– They learned what it was like to have to do something when you’d never been taught

– The CEOs learned what it felt like to be yelled at by customers or by managers

– The CEOs learned about the personal lives of their employees and hearing their stories

– The CEOs learned the human side of the organization, not just the financial side

– Changes were made as a result of the CEOs experience working with their frontline employees

– Adding new training programs was the most common response to the experience

– Part of our human nature is to want to fix problems and the CEOs fixed the problems they found.  But the bigger question is how and why did these problems happen to begin with?  Cultures need to be open and transparent.  Employees have to have the confidence that when they report things to their supervisor that their supervisor is going to report the problem up.

– CEOs need to be connected vertically within the organization and not just with the couple of management layers down.

– Only 4 of the 13 companies put processes in place to continue to seek employee input

– It’s hard to do and organizations struggle with what formal and informal structures can help get that employee input to flow up the organization

– Other scholars investigating employee voice:  Elizabeth Morrison out of New York University, Kimberly Adelman of Columbia Southern University

– What else is needed for employees to speak up?  Things like…

– A supervisor who is open to new ideas versus one who is just “get your job done” and is very transactional

– Employees trust that there is safety, even if they bring information to their supervisor that’s hard to hear

– Ethical, transparent leadership

– Albert Hirschman’s book Exit Voice and Loyalty

– When people are unhappy, they have options…

– They can leave,

– They can speak up,

– Or they can wait to see what happens

– People don’t always exit by leaving the organization

– Culture was mentioned by 10 of the 13 CEOs as being an important factor

– Smaller or mid-sized companies are more likely to have a more open communications and CEOs who work to stay connected with employees

– New idea … leadership is not just about influencing others.  It’s also about letting others influence you.

– Have regular meetings with groups of employees, have lunch, everyone has to eat!  Have to build comfort level with employees

– We can tell people that your voice is heard and your voice matter, but we also need to let them know that it doesn’t mean everything will always go the employee’s way.  There may be other things that influence the decision and there may be things they know seeing the bigger picture.

– Culture is always shifting… new people come in, situations change… culture needs constant attention to make sure it’s the culture you want

– What comes first, engagement or the comfort of employees to speak up

– Denise’s research, found that safety needed to be present, but that engaged employees were more likely to speak up, being engaged was a predecessor to speaking up.

– The leaders in the organization, senior leadership, has to own the idea of we want this culture to be X

– Denise’s recommendation would be that every voice matters, every voice is going to be heard, your opinions count, then set up formal processes and informal methods to support the desired level of culture

– CEO’s don’t wait for employees to come to them, they go into the environment to understand what’s going on or inviting them to breakfast to get regular input

– What went right?  What could we optimize?

– By not asking questions, it means you disagree.  Tell me why you disagree.  Give leader a different frame of reference.

– Research supports that the more employees speak up, the better business results we get

– Learn from other people, let them do things their way and see what you learn

– Social capital is not just knowing people and but also connecting with things they know

– More successful if more connected with others in other areas in your organization and beyond your organization

– If CEOs have strong and weak networks, people beyond their daily contacts,

– Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry

– Good leaders what to learn from others in the organization, who are curious and want to have multiple connections

– HR setting up formal networks to meet people from different parts of the organization

– Leaders that are open help others open up too

– Becoming more human, knowing the personal side of the person, not just an employee

– Takes time to develop the relationships

– Can’t be what you’re not, find ways that work for you that will make everyone else comfortable too

– Always surprised that if you observe people, you can learn from watching people

– The way we mold ourselves comes from many different avenues

– Learning comes from not just the book and the journal articles but real experience and borrowing from what we observe in our own observations

– Everyone always brings something to the party, learn from one another!

– Be curious, keep learning

– Keep thinking about how things could be better, and continue to ask questions

– Dig deep for the areas that might be hampering your business growth, not just seeking the easy answers

– Reach out to others, pick up a phone, ask others to share what they’ve learned

– Stay curious!


Questions Answered:

What impact does a CEO have on giving employees a voice in an organization?

How do you open vertical communications in an organization?

How can I find out what’s going on in the front line of my organization?

What’s going on with the front line employees of your business?

What did CEOs learn from their experiences on the TV show Undercover Boss?

What part does culture play in a company?

Why do so few organizations put in feedback mechanisms to hear more from frontline employees?

When do employees feel comfortable speaking up directly to the CEO?

Do employees become engaged after they speak up?  Or is being engaged why people speak up?

How important is safety for employees to be willing to speak up?

How do we respond after we’ve listened to employees speaking up?

How do we train employees to know what will happen after they speak up?


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