Last week I attended the Global Leadership Summit (GLS). It was two days of talks and discussions with established leaders in many professions. There were many excellent sessions and lots of great perspectives, lessons and stories from inspiring leaders. There’s much to share and write about but I’ll dedicate this post to one idea shared by several speakers that hit a chord with me: Effective leaders give people a voice.

One of the leaders who spoke of this was Danny Meyer, a restaurateur and the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group. The analogy Mr. Meyer gave was one of a captain on a boat, “If you don’t listen to the people in the front, you crash into the rocks.” Another was Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley. Ms. Harris, offered that leaders must engage their employees and be inclusive: “I see you, I hear you, now let me make sure I understand what you said.” Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple, shared that they created an app so the people could provide feedback and ideas, stating “give them a voice so they are being heard.”

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the Principle of Legitimacy. He explains that if those with authority want people to “follow”, they need to do three things: Give people a voice, be fair, and be predictable. (Here we are focusing only on people’s voice.) He further explains through historical examples that people could respond to a lack of voice by resisting or even revolting. So, what does it mean for leaders to give people a voice? And for those who are under authority, what does it mean to have a voice? And what are the benefits?

A friend recently shared a story that their organization was considering changing from one document sharing application to another. The manager was in favor of switching but there was some resistance and one employee was especially pushing back and providing sound rationale for the current application. The manager asked the employee to collect data from the users, which demonstrated strong evidence for not switching applications. But the manager ignored the data and decided to make the switch anyway (which was their intention all along). Several observations:
– If the manager had no intention of changing their mind, they should not have suggested the data collection.
– The manager misled the employee who collected the data, and wasted the employee’s time.
– The employee was frustrated and will probably think twice – or not at all – about offering a contrary perspective again.

To “give people a voice” is NOT a manager asking their employees’ opinion when the manager has no interest in using the input. Truly giving people a voice is asking for their employees’ ideas when appropriate, seriously considering those ideas and, from time to time, acting on them. It does not mean that a leader has to act on every idea from their team or group. But, as a former manager, I learned that people have lots of good ideas & perspectives and many of them are worth pursuing and acting on.

To summarize:
– When managers ask for their employees’ ideas and NEVER follow them, the employees will stop giving their input;
– If managers don’t give their employees a voice, they will respond by either resisting or checking out;
– Both these situations result in a de-motivated staff, the loss of valuable insights from the employees, and a missed opportunity to truly engage and inspire the employees.

… So give them a voice!