Reports of toxic workplaces such as the Met Police and BrewDog seem to be on the rise. But what can organisations do to turn up the volume of employee voice and ensure they respond to concerns about workplace culture? Nicholas Wright and Darren Briggs offer some suggestions.
While many employers are struggling to re-introduce a level of harmony as they adjust to new ways of working in the pandemic, it’s hard to ignore recent headlines about toxic workplaces.
Reports of sexual and discriminatory messages being shared over WhatsApp were the final straw for Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick last week, while employees at Scottish beer producer BrewDog have just launched a platform for employees to report any incidences of harassment after a toxic culture at the brewer has repeatedly come to light.
A self-described community of activists, calling themselves “punks with purpose”, say the platform will offer employees past and present “a safe and truly independent way to have their voices heard”. It’s not just for employees and alumni of BrewDog, either, but open to the wider hospitality and alcohol industry.
Last month the company committed to increase its investment in HR after a series of allegations against chief executive James Watt and others. A recent BBC Disclosure documentary piled on further accusations of inappropriate behaviour from employees in the US.
If your organisation faces such challenges, what’s the best way to deal with it?
Things are different today
It wasn’t so many years ago that leaders were able to exert a certain level of control and influence on how employees could talk about their employer in the public domain. Command and control was not just a term used in the military.
These days, technology has changed the game. The walls between what happens within an organisation and how it gets talked about externally have come down. But this also means that employee voice has grown, too.
BrewDog is not alone in the challenges it is facing. From Google’s #MeToo walkout to Uber drivers standing up for better pay and conditions, the rise of employee activism is now becoming more commonplace as people seek to use digital media as a way of forming communities of interest on a range of issues.
The transparency, ease and anonymity with which employees can speak up externally about their employer – just look at Glassdoor – is in stark contrast with what they can typically do within their own organisation. Confidence is key.
Make it safe to speak
Time and time again, we find that many employees are often reluctant to speak up about issues for fear of reprisal from their bosses.
It’s no surprise that organisations with the highest employee engagement scores tend to be those that have coached their leaders to communicate and practise active listening. They behave in a way that promotes high levels of psychological safety, where employees are encouraged to speak their truths.
Our data shows that when people feel that they are being communicated with in an adult-to adult-way (think ‘peer to peer’, rather than ‘top-down’) trust in leadership rises in line with engagement. When communication is poor, the reverse happens.
There are many lessons for leaders from BrewDog’s troubles, and many may be closer to home than you realise. Ignore the voice of your employee at your peril and be mindful that listening to your people is becoming an organisational ‘superpower’, vital to retaining and attracting the very best talent. Listen with a genuinely open mind.
James Watt has a significant task on his hands to salvage both his reputation and that of BrewDog.
Let employees become the strongest advocates for BrewDog… not their chief executive.
Turning things around will become even more important as he seeks to float BrewDog on the stock market this year. If that doesn’t focus the company, then a publicly listed company’s obligation to listen to employees under Section 172 of the Companies Act probably will.
How to turn things around
We would recommend that Watt focusees on four of our laws of “nimblicity” when it comes to the way he communicates. These apply not just to current employees but all stakeholders, including the “punks with purpose” activists.
First, he needs to pay close attention to what is happening around him. CEOs can’t rely on what those closest to them are saying about how people are feeling. Too many leaders get told what they want to hear rather than what they really need to hear. See the world as it is, not as you might wish it to be.
Second, Watt should practise extreme ownership, by demonstrating accountability for the organisation he leads. If people are saying something is an issue, then guess what? It probably is. Great leaders – whether in business, sport or politics – demonstrate the kind of humility that shows change starting with themselves.
Third, he needs to speak in a way that enables him to humanise, personalise and empathise with people.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this “ethos”, and little did he realise that two thousand years later these principles would be the foundation for successful leadership communication and influence in the digital age.
You can persuade people with facts, but it is emotion that motivates us. Watt needs to speak to the emotional context of his audiences and not try to swim against that tide.
And finally, our fourth point. He needs to shift the conversation from the corporate equivalent of ‘he said/she said’, to one where he is genuinely listening with an open mind and having transformational conversations. His best key message is to actually ask a question.
This is easier to preach than to practise. As Dr Stephen Covey said in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. In our angry, bifurcated world, active listening is a skill we can all improve.
Success will be when employees are encouraged to speak up without fear in the spirit of making BrewDog a great company and a fantastic place to work. Let employees become the strongest advocates for BrewDog… not their chief executive.