Nigel was a director who managed (he would undoubtedly have said ‘led’) a factory assembling computers and IT hardware.  Most of the staff were women doing fairly intricate work with circuit boards and the like, but, as is so often the way, all the managers and unit heads were men.  This suited Nigel very well who, whist he was capable of switching on the charm, was an autocrat through and through.  He had little idea of collaboration or even consultation.  Decisions, right or wrong, were what he believed he was on this earth to make.

One day Nigel went to a seminar at the Institute of Directors where a speaker waxed lyrical about the benefits of staff attitude surveys and upward feedback.  Nigel was attracted by the concept – not for himself, but for his direct reports, many of whom he found wanting.  He thought that a dose of upward feedback would help them to see the error of their ways – perhaps even give him an excuse to fire them. So, never having done anything like this before, he hired an outside consultant (from the same firm that the speaker at the Institute had used) to conduct an attitude survey among all the staff.

A detailed questionnaire invited staff, anonymously, to say what they thought about everything from the food in the canteen to the quality of their managers.  The staff, not used to being consulted or listened to, relished the opportunity to have their say.  Accordingly, the response rate was over 90 per cent – the highest ever in the consultant’s experience of conducting surveys of this kind.

The questionnaires were analysed and the consultant went to see Nigel to give him a preliminary overview of the data prior to its being fed back to the whole management group.  The consultant said, ‘There is a great deal of detail to go through, but I can summarise the findings by telling you that the majority of your staff are very critical of management in general and you in particular.  In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, they think you are an out and out bastard’. 

Nigel was shocked to hear this.  He was sufficiently self-aware to appreciate that he was dictatorial, but he had always seen himself as a benevolent autocrat, making decisions in the interests of his workforce.  How could he be so seriously misunderstood?

The consultant, used to dealing with senior managers in a state of denial when confronted with their feedback, reassured Nigel that this was not at all unusual.  He said he would be delighted to help Nigel put together a plan that would change the staff’s perceptions for the better. The plan was simple.  For one year, Nigel would spend one hour each working day talking with staff, asking for their ideas and being seen to listen.  After the year, the staff attitude survey would be repeated so that the improvement could be measured.

The consultant coached Nigel in the skills of active listening, with all the verbal and non-verbal behaviours necessary to convince people he really was listening.

So for a year Nigel applied his charm and, supported by the consultant, diligently implemented the plan. He was genuinely surprised by the quality of the ideas that were forthcoming from his staff.  Some of them resulted directly in cost-saving efficiencies.  During the year he was also able to prevent a strike that would almost certainly have happened but for the plan to consult widely.  All in all, Nigel felt pleased with himself.

The time came to repeat the attitude survey and analyse the results.  Again, the response rate was high and, again, the consultant met with Nigel to review the trends. 

The consultant said, ‘As you know, there is a great deal of detail to go through, but I am pleased to tell you there has been some improvement. The majority of your staff now think you are a cunning bastard!’

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