In a new film release, The Good Boss, the corporate leader Julio ‘Blanco’ is typically genial and benign. Whiter than white. “Don’t treat me like a boss,” he says, always ready with a smile and a kind word for his staff when he’s on the factory floor, because, after all, they’re part of one “family”.
In reality, it’s all a front. Blanco is only interested in his profit margins and, for the moment, winning another business excellence award. He dumps long-serving staff and takes advantage of his power over young female interns.
It’s more than just a black comedy: “a tragicomic tale of a worn-out labour ecosystem”, according to the film’s director. In other words, employees have put up with this kind of hypocrisy for too long; they know when their bosses are faking it. The days of natural deference in the workplace are gone, or are at least going. People want honesty, from top to bottom.
The good news is that our era of changing attitudes isn’t a problem for organisations based on an open culture. There’s still a great deal of straightforward dealing and trust among decent people in most workplaces.
But for HR and management there is still the issue of how to deal with a creeping cynicism that undermines staff loyalty and motivation and performance. And at the same time, balance that with helping employees feel able to be themselves and speak up; freed from anxiety and a sense of being powerless. The constant question is whether becoming more open and transparent is an opportunity (encouraging diversity, new perspectives, an increased confidence and sense of psychological safety, belonging and commitment); or is it a threat (exposing problems, instigating a whole routine of clashes and conflict)?
The best employers will flourish in this environment. And they’ll do so by giving their people the skills and framework of support that makes open conversations the norm, as well as making sure that the inevitable grievances and disputes are dealt with in a consistently reasonable and mature kind of way.
Genuinely ‘good’ behaviours — whether that’s the boss or otherwise — are rooted in conversations. Every output from an organisation at some point started with a conversation, and it’s the quality of those conversations that improves the quality of the outputs.
This is what we call having ‘Conversational Integrity’ (CI), a fundamental quality that is made up of five capacities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening and situational awareness. These capacities or skills are all fundamental to human interaction, the real levers for what make an organisation or business perform better. If you want innovative people, then they need to be curious, and listen to others they need to feel able to take risks and trust their colleagues.
Ensuring effective communication takes place top-down, bottom-up and side-to-side is as vital to success as supporting people through the emotional aspects of organisational change. Training and coaching can take people from a place of low trust, defensiveness and withdrawal, to one of curiosity, engagement and mutual understanding.
At the same time, there’s a need for good systems: such as access to an internal mediation service and neutral assessment, services that are used regularly, at an early stage in disputes rather than as a last resort.
And most of all there has to be leadership to make a strength and an advantage of our more questioning and unsettled times, to demonstrate a willingness to take a lead on creating a ‘clear air’ culture.