In a recent article published in the Financial Times, Andrew Hill welcomed us to “the age of insubordination” citing incidents involving Sally Yates (Donald Trump’s acting attorney-general),  Kepa Arrizabalaga (Chelsea’s goalkeeper) and Alberto Costa (a UK government ministerial aide) who all defied their bosses in a very public way. Hill claims that a flattening of hierarchy and a loosening of traditional controls has brought insubordination into the workplace, although in a less dramatic fashion.  He argues that by turning managers into coaches and pushing decision-making responsibility out to team members, employees are exercising their right to dissent if they disagree with policy and strategy.

It is true to say that the flattening of organisational hierarchies has gathered pace since the financial crisis of 2008, but this seems to have been mainly due to cost-cutting re-structures rather than a strategy designed to create quicker decision-making and greater accountability. In these flatter structures, managers are required to be coaches, but it is debatable whether organisations have invested enough in developing coaching skills for managers to be effective in this role, and indeed whether decision-making has actually been devolved to be able to argue that there has been a significant increase in self-managed teams in UK organisations. From conversations in the kitchen to Glassdoor and Twitter people now have a greater willingness than ever before to share their opinions about their workplace.

Hill argues that “managers need to find new ways to absorb and respond to dissent.” IPA would argue that managers need to do more than just absorbing and responding.

IPA has long been arguing that much of employee disengagement is rooted in employees lacking information and having to fill important information gaps through speculation meaning conspiracy theories can easily arise.  From our recent experience in organisations we have seen how a lack of transparency and provision of strategic information, sometimes through the best of intentions because a strategy has not yet been finalised, or a desire not to cause unnecessary worry for colleagues, can lead to employees assuming the worst intentions of senior managers that poisons future workplace relationships.

So, here we are once again, as in 2009 with the publication of the Macleod Report, talking about the need for a clear strategic narrative, a line of sight from the organisation’s strategy to the shop floor as the critical basis for informing the workforce. Brexit and its related uncertainties hasn’t helped organisations share business plans when there are so many unknowns, but the unwillingness of organisations to share their strategy until they have a solution can fuel the discontent.

Most employees do not expect their managers to have all of the answers and, based on our experience of more open communication, they often understand management dilemmas more than executives think they will.  Openness and transparency will not, of course, stop all disagreement, insubordination and disengagement but it will give people a more informed choice about whether they wish to challenge or disobey. Managers should ensure they have done everything to give employees the opportunity to engage fully with the challenges facing the business.

This is important because, if disengagement still exists as an informed choice, there may be a real problem somewhere in the organisation. There have been examples of poor management in a number of UK organisations where employees have tried to highlight shortcomings but their views have been dismissed. If an organisation has an informed workforce, it really needs to listen to it and engage them in dialogue and problem solving.        

This will not always work. The example of Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa refusing to be substituted, would not have been solved by Chelsea manager Sarri sharing his strategic narrative.  Kepa clearly had his own interests at heart when he decided to remain on the pitch, and not the best interests of his team. Then again, not many UK workers are in such a strong relative position to their manager as the highly valued premier league goalkeeper Kepa is.  

No matter how good management’s communication of the strategic narrative is there will always be a minority of disengaged employees, but we owe it to the majority to be as open and transparent as possible and to give employees the chance to say “fair enough, thanks for being honest and letting me know”. If the employees still believe there is a problem, we had better listen to them carefully.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

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