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Why C-Suite Executives Don't Hear Enough Truth

March 08, 2021   ·  

Now that you’re at C-level, there’s a good chance that you won’t hear as much as you used to about what really goes on in your company.

You’ll have swathes of information about all kinds of things related to your business, but little or no information about what it’s really like to occupy the entry-level and lower-tier jobs, or what it’s really like to work in the company you’re now responsible for.

What’s more, what you do hear about life for your people is almost certainly filtered and biased.

Think of it like Chinese whispers, by the time it reaches you the information is changed beyond recognition.

Are they protecting you from reality or themselves from your reaction to the reality?  Most likely, it’s a bit of both when neither is required.

It’s not your fault. And it isn’t anybody else’s either. It’s human nature to protect ourselves from situations representing a threat to our future selves, even if that threat is unrealistic or imagined.

On the plus side, you can do something about it.

So, let’s explore why this is happening and share some practical advice on what you can do to hear more truth in your company.

Illustration by Drew Sheneman of the Tribune Media Services

Why even team leaders are out of the loop

Team leaders and supervisors — the first level up from the shop floor — usually have great insight into the people in their teams and the work they do.

Still, even they don’t get to hear everything that’s on their team’s minds.

Take a moment and think back to the earliest part of your career.

If you’re anything like most people, you did your best to do what your boss asked and not to embarrass yourself or your boss.

It’s basic human nature to protect your reputation and status. At work, this gets amplified, because when someone is around with higher status and rank, you — unconsciously — adjust your behaviour. After all, your current work and future career are at stake.

You may have experienced this as an increased feeling of clumsiness when your boss was standing behind you watching you work over your shoulder. And it’s also what caused you to hesitate about sharing your ideas and concerns with people higher up in the hierarchy.

You couldn’t let them think you were foolish, or upset your boss by going over their head. Not to mention the embarrassment (and consequences) in case you ended up doing both.

So it’s no wonder that even team leaders don’t hear everything.

And that not hearing enough truth is not about people not wanting to speak their truth, but about them not being able to because their survival instincts won’t let them.

How truth gets distorted

So, human nature and the organisational hierarchy conspire to keep people in your firm from speaking their mind with even their direct team leaders or supervisors.

Your first-level team leaders can’t escape their human nature and the hierarchy either.

It keeps them from freely speaking their mind or sharing their trials and tribulations with their managers.

And what they do report, is filtered and coloured by their own filters and cognitive biases, as well the innate need to protect themselves from an adverse reaction by their boss when things work out differently than anticipated.

This happens at every level, all the way up to the C-suite. After all, that's where the phrase 'executive echo chamber' came from. 

That’s why, at your level, there isn’t much truth left. 

And that isn’t all.

How your senses get dulled

Every management level in your organisation not only decreases and colours the upward flow of information but also decreases your ability to sense what’s going on.

Supervisors and team leaders are close enough to the action to spot most of what goes on even when their team doesn’t raise it with them. They can sense when one of their team needs extra training or a bit of support, and see when someone puts way too much into their work to be sustainable.

You cannot.

You may with your immediate reports, but your distance to the action is simply too great.

Both the physical distance — C-level offices aren’t usually on the shop floor — and the psychological and emotional distance created by the hierarchy and different everyday challenges and experiences.

Get back into your team leader mindset 

Of course, it doesn’t mean you’re not hearing or sensing anything.

After all, every organisation has its share of courageous rebels (and some fools) who’ll speak their truth regardless.

But it does mean that to hear and sense what’s really going on in your organisation, you need to take concerted action.

A great place to start is by getting back to the place when you heard the most — direct team leadership. And although they don’t hear everything either, they stand the greatest chance of knowing what’s going on with the work and with their team members, your staff.

What you want to do then, is to get you some of that team leader magic back.

But it’s impossible to do what they do at scale, right?

Beyond a certain size, you can’t know everyone in the company. You can’t talk with everyone regularly and long enough to show interest in what they’re doing and how they’re experiencing their workplace.

Well, the good news is, you don’t need to.

The trick is to put things in place so the insights normally the preserve of team leaders and supervisors become accessible to you.

1. Get out of your office: MBWA

If you, and all the managers and leaders working with you, want to get a better sense of what’s going on in your company, take a page out of David Packard’s book and manage by walking around the front lines.

Get out of your office. Walk around the shop floor. Talk with people. Spread your message and listen to theirs. Help employees when they’re struggling with a decision.

Yes, at first it’ll feel awkward. You’ll wonder what to talk about, what questions to ask.

And it’ll be just as awkward for your people too. Their brains will go into survival mode just because you show up. They’ll ask themselves “What’s she doing here?” They’ll wonder whether there’s bad news in their future.

But do it frequently and you’ll all get used to it, you’ll all even come to like it.

When my brother was a director with 300 direct and indirect reports, he made it a point to show his face somewhere at the frontlines every day. After significant initial reluctance, they eventually came 180° around and ultimately would have walked through fire to get a job done for him.

The things to remember are:

So show up frequently and ask open questions.

And yes, you can do that even in this cyber-age where everything is digital and remote.

2. Keep psychological safety in mind

Management by walking around is great, but you’ll need to do more than walk around and ask open questions if you want to hear more truth.

For everyone to speak their mind, they need to feel that it’s safe to do so.

To present their reality openly, without massaging it, they need to trust you with that information. They need to know, feel in their bones, that there’ll be no negative consequences that come back to haunt them.

Creating and maintaining the necessary psychological safety for that to happen, is really hard (and that’s an understatement). And your organisational hierarchy is working against you on this, because those lower in the hierarchy are keenly aware of the difference in social status. 

But it can be done.

It takes continued effort and attention, but you can shift your culture to be more open and transparent.

Your behaviour is going to be critical here, so keep these in mind:

Even if it isn’t the best decision that could be made, they can move forward and you’ll have given them the confidence (and a way) to make decisions in the future.

It starts with you showing these behaviours consistently.

But you can’t stop there.

3. Encourage everyone to think like a leader

You need everyone to show these behaviours, including everyone on the shop floor.


Because for the cultural shift to openness and transparency to succeed, you need everyone in your organisation to have the interpersonal skills to behave in a way that encourages that openness and transparency, and taking responsibility for it.

Leadership training helps leaders gain those skills, but most companies don’t make that available to people at the lower levels of the hierarchy.

That’s a pity because interpersonal skills are crucial for successful teamwork, collaboration, and trust at every level.

And without those, creativity, innovation, and change are harder to achieve and have less impact.

For those you also need everyone to commit daily acts of leadership in their own work. They need to feel free to make decisions and take actions without waiting for approval from above.

And get out of their way, like David Marquet learned to do.

4. Listen to understand

If you want to understand the everyday challenges and experiences of the people who work for you, you need to listen to what they’re saying.

That’s more than simply giving them a voice.

Sure, you need to hear their voices if you’re to listen, but most of the solutions that “give your employees a voice” do not help you understand what’s really going on for them.

Let’s review a couple.

Surveys suffer from many problems, almost by definition.

Many platforms to give employees a voice, miss the mark in one or more ways.

However much you want to have an open and honest culture and for people to stand up for what they believe, they won’t when it’s on record and can come back to haunt them. Meaning that you’ll only hear from people that would have spoken up anyway.

You incur the Facebook effect. You’ll only hear the good stuff, what’s marvellous, how much they love their work, what nice colleagues they have. And you’ll hear none of their challenges, their dark moods or depression, how much they’re struggling at home or at work.

Psychological safety is essential to effective employee voice. 

To understand what’s really going on for people in your company, you want the raw articulation of their everyday experience with their work, colleagues, bosses, team members, and personal lives.

You’ll only hear that when you offer them what journalists offer their sources to get information they otherwise wouldn’t get: anonymity.

Harkn does just that.

It protects everyone’s anonymity, giving them the safety to talk about anything and everything. 

Using Harkn, you gain the perspective of every team leader and manager in your company.

Your employees’ daily check-ins, enable you to gauge what people’s day-to-day experiences are, to get a sense of their well-being, and to listen in on how people respond to your decisions and announcements, in real-time.

What’s more, the safety of anonymity allows people to talk about stuff they’d never publicly admit to. Like mental health issues such as depression and burnout. Harkn even points you to vulnerable people and lets you reach out to and support them — all while still preserving their anonymity.

And you don’t have to worry about having to police it. Harkn users can and do that themselves, just as happens on large scale platforms where policing simply is impractical if not impossible.

Ready to hear more of what matters? 

Being a C-level exec has its perks. No denying that.

But when it comes to knowing what goes on in your company, what challenges your employees face every day, being at the top is a disadvantage. What you think people’s experiences are, and what they actually are can be worlds apart.

You now know why that is and what you can do to change it.

So take action to unlock employee voice start hearing truth from every level of your organisation. 

Harkn is specifically designed to make it easier for senior leadership to make faster, better-informed decisions in the interests of their people and business.

Visit our voice page to understand how our live dialogue tools help to bridge the gap between the frontline and the boardroom. 


Marjan Venema
Marjan Venema

Certified Content Marketing Expert, Connect with Marjan on LinkedIn

CultureLeadershipHealthy companiesWellbeingConnectionEmployee voicePsychological safety

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