Whether protests are done en masse or by one person, listening to the concerns is beneficial for that person, for the organization and for everyone in it.
A couple of years ago I traveled to Kiev for meetings with government education people. It was my first trip there, and as usual, I did some research prior to my travel. Ukraine has a long and proud history, and it was interesting to learn some details that I had not previously known. Despite having a number of Ukrainian friends, I felt that I knew surprisingly little about the country. I left on the trip with high expectations about the education ministry engagement and my experience in the country.
Gathering to protest
Our distributor called at my hotel on the morning of our meeting with the ministry, and we drove a short distance to an area close to the ministry. I noticed that a lot of people were walking in the same direction as we were heading, but our distributor didn’t mention anything so I didn’t ask. As we got closer to the parking area, the trickle of people had become a flood. Looking ahead, a virtual wall of people was holding banners and placards. Our distributor told me that this was a protest against the government but that I needn’t worry. We had a letter of invitation, so all we had to do was show it at the front of the crowd and we could pass through. We worked our way through what really was quite a peaceful crowd, showed our letter and indeed passed through just as predicted.
We left behind the large crowd of people and walked for what seemed a very long time across an empty square. I couldn’t resist looking back at the demonstrators – in hindsight a bad idea because a wave of concern swept over me. What really was keeping the crowd peaceful? Only a couple of flimsy, temporary barricades kept people from flooding into the square. I imagined thousands of eyes trained on our backs, wondering who those people were with their letter that allowed them entry to meetings with people against whom they were protesting. At the conclusion of our meeting I asked if there was an alternate way out other than walking back across the square into the waiting throngs. There was, to my great relief.
Unfolding of events
We all know what has erupted in Ukraine over the last days, weeks and months. The protests have turned violent, people have died, a new government has been elected and Crimea has been annexed by Russia. Certainly, this was not a contemplated outcome just over 2 years ago when people advised me that I should not be concerned about the protests. Obviously, there was a discounting of what was really simmering beneath the surface and that the matter was much more serious than was being initially portrayed.
I, of course, immediately take this as a lesson for business and for me. I have long assumed that malcontents are always in a company’s midst – people who view things differently and for whom everything is not going well. Whether these people are truly unhappy or merely cynical doesn’t really matter. It also doesn’t matter if their grievances and perspectives are real or defensible – they are real to them. This perspective has led me to always value the contrary perspectives of others. I value the complainers, the people who will speak up to try to resolve a situation. Consequently, I have preferred to engage with and not ignore these people and their issues.
I believe that it is far worse to not deal with a potentially confrontational situation. By clamping down on criticism and complaints, people can simply disengage and leave. Worse yet, they could disengage and stay where their negativity and disengagement may infect others and create substantial issues that spread and worsen.
Management teams should never assume that quiet means that everything is well. There are any number of reasons why people don’t speak up and complain. That means that actively seeking out issues has to be a matter of regular staff engagement. Communicating that complaints are always welcome if the complainer’s perspective is to assist and improve the company is a good first step. Sincerely thanking people for sharing their insights helps to reinforce a company’s commitment to getting better. Finally, communicating openly about the issues and their resolution matches words with action.
It’s management’s job to make this a comfortable and safe experience for both quiet and vocal staff alike. This people-first strategy is not just at the heart of a creative and engaged culture, it’s critically important to ultimate business success.