By Tommy Weir, Special to Gulf News
“Give a man a mask and he will tell the truth,” says the Julian Assange character in “The Fifth Estate”, a movie which told the story of the news-leaking website WikiLeaks. Sadly, those words ring true all too often.
For whatever reason, many people lack authenticity unless their identity is protected. For some, it’s fear of acceptance, fear of retribution or fear of sticking out. For others it’s uncertainty over whether their view is right, the worry that no one will listen or a feeling that nobody will care about what they have to say.
In the workplace, it can be even more complicated. For many of the same reasons listed above, employees would never consider being completely honest with their bosses about their feelings or concerns, even with mask on, and that creates a problem for leaders looking to create positive change.
Stating the facts when under cover
I’m a big fan of the hit TV show Undercover Boss. In each episode a person from upper management goes undercover as an entry-level employee, so they can see the reality of the business. On one occasion, the boss in question was Andy Wiederhorn, CEO of Fatburger. With competition heating up, he wanted to have his finger on the pulse of the business and see what was really going on behind the scenes.
So, in disguise, Wiederhorn, visited the Fatburger restaurant in Mesa, AZ, and found that the franchise was a mess. Stepping into the kitchen, Angelica, an assistant manager, showed him faucets that couldn’t be turned off and fryers that weren’t frying.
To top it off, the franchise, which is part of a company with grand expansion plans and revenues that top $100 million a year, had failed to pay its workers. “By the time we get our paychecks, there’s no money in the bank,” Angelica reported.
During a break outside, the assistant manager continued to detail the problematic culture at her workplace. “The only time we see the owner is when something is broken,” she told the undercover CEO, adding that there was no positive reinforcement. He “doesn’t come around to see how we’re doing,” she complained.
And then the ultimate blow to Wiederhorn: “It’s like, I am working for you, but why?”
When Wiederhorn asked Angelica if she had ever talked to the company owner about her grievances, she bashfully replied, “I could never do that … That man signs my paycheck.”
Try a role reversal
True to Julian Assange’s movie quote, Angelica could only tell the truth when her identity was hidden from the powers that be. She felt she could never voice her concerns to the Fatburger owner, yet, here she was, sharing every detail with a complete stranger.
Why? Because she felt safe. She did not have to worry about the repercussions of her honesty or fear for her job.
As a leader, I want you to look at this from another angle and ask yourself a question: What if the plot in Undercover Bosses was reversed? What if, instead of the boss heading out to uncover the reality behind the scenes at their company, undercover employees walked into your office to learn the reality about you?
It is not just employees who feel they can only tell the truth in secret, nor are they the only ones who sometimes feel afraid. Leaders have insecurities of their own and hide behind the status of their positions.
However, if you want to get to the truth about your business, then you need to lead by example: find the courage to be open and honest, with your face on full show. Only then will your people feel it’s safe to do the same.
Make your employees feel that it is OK to openly express their views, that you will listen and take their concerns seriously. Destroy that toxic environment where your team only feels able to whisper the truth to colleagues ... or even strangers in corridors. The health of your business and your workforce will be all the better for it.
Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered Leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.