Pawn chess pieces stood around a toppled king chess piece

I’ve just returned from a fascinating business trip to India. Following in the footsteps of a colleague, I was there to give feedback on a culture assessment of a large manufacturing facility and share my recommendations.

One significant finding in the assessment was that people found it difficult to challenge upwards. This is certainly a wider cultural aspect of Indian life that will prove hard to address in the coming years of culture change for the business.

This observation got me thinking about the wider difficulty of challenging or questioning someone in a position of authority. It’s related to how easy it is to refuse to do something on the grounds of safety.

Refusal in itself is a strong form of challenge to authority. Though in this case I generally find that people are more comfortable – perhaps because it’s less personal and there’ll often be support from a safety professional or trade union rep. But when it comes to pointing out the unsafe behaviour of an individual manager, the person raising the issue will naturally be more wary.

Why is this the case in an organisation where everyone wants the same result i.e. nobody, whoever they are, getting hurt?

Of course there may be a sense of embarrassment, perceived fear of reprisal or at least an uncertain response. This will be stronger in an organisation with a very distinct hierarchy and no history of open communication. People at junior levels are likely to feel a lack of influence too. But these obstacles can be overcome.

Here’s how:

  • Empower everyone to take real personal responsibility for their own safety and others around them
  • Keep responsibility for overcoming this situation at the senior level
  • Break down barriers and social norms – there shouldn’t be any hierarchy when it comes to keeping each other safe
  • Managers and supervisors must recognise and understand how they are perceived as role models by their employees and team members
  • Managers and supervisors must understand how they come across and recognise the huge inhibition that someone has to overcome when they speak up
  • Go out of your way to thank someone for their observation, if this behaviour is to be encouraged then it must be recognised and reinforced when it occurs

The last item needs the senior person to feel genuinely grateful that someone has been looking out for them. That doesn’t mean hiding their potential embarrassment or even annoyance (at themselves perhaps) by making some cutting, sarcastic remark.

Staff will find it much easier to speak up if they have a flexible yet structured approach to follow and if they’ve got some basic engagement skills. Everyone in an organisation must be given permission to speak up, raise issues and make genuine observations. Remember that permission is communicated by what we do much more than by what we say.

Only when the culture allows this can managers expect their staff to be watching out for them for the right reasons.