Embracing the nay-sayers

BrewDog ignored its unhappy employees at its peril.

BrewDog’s recent run-in with its ex-employees has shown what can happen when an organisation’s culture stops working for its people, without the organisation realising.

The unfortunate truth is that the animosity between BrewDog and its staff could have been avoided if the company had listened to employees properly, particularly those who were less happy with how things were.

Is your culture healthy or is it stopping people from being their true selves?

Within every organisation there are perceived ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to behave. That’s because within every culture certain behaviours, or norms, are rewarded.

Cultural norms affect everything an organisation does, whether it’s how much focus there is on the customer or on the bottom line; how imperfections are dealt with; how quickly you can expect change to happen; how much consensus people need before moving forward; the hours people work… the list goes on.

While there are many positive aspects to having cultural norms – expediency and psychological safety being two of them – they can also be damaging if they stop people from being their true selves. Employees end up sticking to the path that’s culturally safest, diminishing diversity of thought and action, something we’re all acutely aware is needed right now. Or worse, diminishing their self confidence and mental state.

So, how do organisations make sure their culture is a healthy one?

You could start by embracing those people (who I’ve called nay-sayers for the purpose of a headline for this blog) who take a risk and respond to a thought or action negatively or differently. These are the ones you should be paying attention to.

Why? Because they are holding the mirror up.

Most people in an organisation will go along with the norms – that’s why they’re called norms – and will respond positively or with indifference, either because they genuinely believe in the thought or action, or because they don’t feel equipped to challenge it. But there will always be those who are more sceptical.

I’m not saying you should amplify the negative views, as this can be exhausting and confusing for your audience, but you should face them with genuine openness to see what can be learnt.

I’ve worked in communications for a long time and it’s only in very recent years that sceptical views have been genuinely seen as opportunities for valuable feedback. Before, it felt as though our job as communicators was to paint a picture that an organisation knew exactly what it was doing, that people could trust it implicitly and that there was an answer to every query, neatly wrapped up in an FAQs document.

Before, it felt as though our job as communicators was to paint a picture that the organisation knew exactly what it was doing… In fact an organisation never has all the answers.

In fact, an organisation never has all the answers. There will always be someone who has another way to look at it or who has data or a personal experience that calls an idea into question. The growth of social media has helped organisations to relax about this to a certain extent, knowing that the ‘nothing to see here’ mentality just won’t wash anymore, but it’s still an uncomfortable place to be.

What’s important here is your intention. If you are humble and actively engage in genuine two-way conversation with those who have doubts, you’re going to build a much deeper understanding of the issue as an organisation, as well as go some way to creating new advocates in those who doubted you.

I tried this during a culture change programme once. Instead of responding to the sceptics with the usual party lines, I invited them to focus groups. What did we get? A much richer picture of what change was really needed, and an agreement in the room that ultimately, we were all trying to achieve the same goals.

There are other ways to tackle it – the important thing is if your culture isn’t as helpful as you thought it was, it might not be the leaders who have all the answers.

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