the emperor’s new clothes (or: lead through communication)

04/08/2010

by carolyn mathews

You may remember the Hans Christian Andersen parable about the Emperor who hired weavers to make him a suit woven of fine material. The weavers claimed the fabric was invisible to all who were not fit for their positions, or “hopelessly stupid.” Although he himself could not see the fabric, the Emperor pretended he could see it for fear he would be considered not fit for his position. Thus, the naked Emperor believed he wore spectacular new clothes in an invisible fabric. No one, not even his advisors, dared tell the Emperor he was naked. One day, as the Emperor strolled through the village, one boy in the crowd shouted that the Emperor wore nothing. This parable has so many lessons in it, but one question in particular is relevant to executives – is there someone in your crowd willing to shout out?

Almost two decades ago, when I worked in a corporate communications position, every other month the company held an all-employee meeting to discuss various issues ranging from financials, to product launches, to organizational changes. Generally, information was dispersed by an executive speaker at the podium, who also answered questions from employees brave enough to ask – and all of it was taped. I wonder how many questions went unasked, how many concerns remained unstated, and how many ideas were never heard because employees were too shy, afraid, {insert your description here} to address the company executives.

However, the company president (George) asked me to do something that I still marvel at today. He asked me to collect (anonymous) comments from employees after these meetings. I would bring him comments heard in the elevator, at lunch, and in break rooms. Sometimes the feedback was primarily positive, but more often I provided feedback from employees who were angry, felt their concerns were not addressed, or were confused by what they considered to be conflicting information. I took this information to George. He never asked who made the comments, what department they came from, or under what conditions I heard the comments. He listened to what I shared and together we devised a plan to communicate further with the employees to address these comments as soon as possible. As a leader, George understood that employees, at all levels, were often not willing to address him directly with their concerns or ideas, for fear of reprisal or almost worse – no response at all. He believed in the importance of transparency in communication.  In essence, George found a way for employees to shout out from the crowd, without them feeling “hopelessly stupid.”

Now, many years later, when people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am an executive and career coach. While some respond with personal interest, many more respond with something akin to, “Geez, I know a few executives in my company that could use you.” As I speak with them further, I find these are not the garden-variety disgruntled employees. These are people who care deeply about their jobs and the organizations that provide those jobs. Yet they feel no one in the company is willing to let their leaders know about the employee perspective.

The inherent imbalance of power resulting from carrying an executive title can make employees reluctant to share their concerns and ideas with you unless you have a leadership style that fosters communication. In a recent interview with the New York Times’ Adam Bryant, the Chief Executive of the Container Store, Kip Tindell states, “One of our foundation principles is that leadership and communication are the same thing. Communication is leadership.” This represents a solid foundation. After all, how can you lead without complete information?

As a leader, you know employees are one of your most important constituencies. How can you ensure you facilitate the exchange of information and ideas with your employees? Communications is a two-way experience. As you rise to the top, have you found a way to balance the information you are privileged to hold with the need to foster two-way employee communications, instead of merely the delivery of information? Have you ascertained who on your management team will tell you the truth instead of being concerned they will be viewed as “not worthy of their position”? Are they, in turn, in touch with their employees? To lead well, create an environment that encourages open, two-way communication. This helps ensure you will always have someone willing to let you know there is no such thing (yet!) as invisible fabric.

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