Helping Employees Speak Up: The question for all managers is how to make sure their employees aren't afraid to tell them what they need to know.

Author:Johnson, Larry
Position:Management & Careers

In November 2013, a gunman took shots at the White House from outside the grounds, successfully hitting the building. A Secret Service officer standing on the Truman Balcony became aware of the attack when she heard shots and felt marble and glass cascading down on her from bullet strikes on the walls and windows. She told several senior officers that she thought the house had been hit. At a briefing the next day, supervisors explained that the gunshots were from people in two cars shooting at each other and that the incident did not involve the White House. The agent did not challenge her superiors "for fear of being criticized." (1) Later that day, the FBI searched the area around the Truman Balcony and found damage to the building from the bullet strikes.

In this case, the damage caused by a subordinate's fear of disagreeing with her superiors was minimal--just some embarrassment for the Secret Service. Being afraid to give managers timely and necessary feedback can have much more devastating results. For example, in 2001, the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Greenville was conducting a special tour for a group of civilians off the coast of Hawaii and decided to show off by demonstrating an "emergency blow," rapidly rising from the ocean depths and breaking through the surface like a whale playing in the waves. Unfortunately, the rapidly emerging submarine collided with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, sinking the small boat and killing nine of the 35 people onboard.

A subsequent U.S. naval inquiry uncovered many mistakes made by the Greenville's captain and crew that day, chief among them the failure of the fire control technician to warn the commander that the sonar display had identified a ship in the area. In a subsequent interview, a Navy captain with extensive command experience of nuclear submarines, said: "On this particular ship, and on a lot of ships in the Navy, the crew has so much trust in the skipper's abilities that they don't question him when they should. The FCT had a ship on the display but he saw the captain looking through the periscope. He probably assumed that if the skipper didn't see it ... it wasn't there." (2)

These two incidents look a lot like cases of "The Emperor's New Clothes," a short story written by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit that is invisible to anyone who is stupid or incompetent. In reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the...

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