Over the past year or so I have been an avid reader of the business section of The New York Times. Each week they conduct an interview with a C.E.O. and, invariably, it is about their leadership style and the lessons they have learned. A dominant learning in these interviews was realizing the importance of getting input — unfettered input — from customers as well as employees. And getting such unfettered input means leaders have to LISTEN, generously and graciously hear what is being said.
Few of us would deny that this is vitally important in today’s organizations. For in order to improve what an organization does, the leader needs to know what’s going on and discern what needs to be changed and improved.
In Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s new memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” and I came across something that got me concerned about whether or not a boss can really get unfettered input in the present culture of many of our major institutions – including the police. Warren relates getting a word of caution from Larry Summers, one of our government’s top economic advisors.
Warren was talking to Summers about our nation’s need to level the economic playing field so that Main Street doesn’t always come in second to Wall Street. The failure so far to do this, she said, was our biggest economic failure. In response, Summers gave her some advice about insiders and outsiders.
“Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People – powerful people – listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”
This got me thinking about my years in government. Of, course, I was an insider, or was I? Now that I have retired from policing and taken on the task of writing about things police need to do to improve, I have a sense I have become an outsider.
And more importantly, does giving your boss input on what needs fixing make you a discontent – an outsider? This disturbs me. In our organizations today, does working to improve and fix things mean you are not going along with the game and, therefore, have become a malcontent — an outsider?
How does a progressive leader operate in a climate in which he or she absolutely needs unfettered input in order to succeed, but is hampered by an organizational culture which dissuades it — calls any criticism an unbreakable rule?
In policing, as in many organizations, there are insiders and outsiders. In police work it’s a little different, being an outsider is not only dangerous to one’s career, but also can compromise your safety (when you need a help on a hot call, maybe no one will show up?). It is something that most every woman and person of color within the police service knows.
If it is true, as Summers says, that the opinion of outsiders is irrelevant, then there is little or no possibility for any significant change to be undertaken. Because in order to improve things, those who have the power to make changes need to know what needs fixing and most always that comes from the rank and file. If a worker tells a boss about what needs fixing and the boss considers the suggestion to be a criticism, we’re all in big trouble.
What do you think? How unfettered is input in your organization? Is input considered criticism? Does giving input define a person in your organization as an outsider and, therefore, never to be listened to by those who have the power to change or improve things?