The 183-year-old tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes could easily translate into the way some people behave and the environments we might find ourselves working in today.
What’s so fascinating about this tale?
For starters, it’s not your average fairy tale. The Emperor’s New Clothes (let us abbreviate to ENC going forward) is much more than a simple story that momentarily taps into your imagination, quickly forgotten until you eventually have children and share the story with them. It provokes deep thought and provides insights into the human condition.
ENC – Condensed Version
The tale is about two weavers who promise a vain emperor a new suit of clothes made from a particular golden thread they say is invisible only to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. They swindle the Emperor out of gold, make no clothes at all and con the Emperor, his courtiers, and his ministers into believing that the clothes are invisible to them. Not one of them speaks up.
When the emperor parades before the crowd in his new “clothes”, his courtiers, ministers and subjects are too scared to say they don’t see any clothes on him for fear that they will also appear stupid. Yet, he is naked!
Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Why is it still so relevant?
So why does it appear that we have not grown in the last 183 years? Why are there environments and cultures in today’s organisations where the Emperor seems to show up time and time again?
Have you ever worked in or even created an environment where:
- Employees talk about problems and the reality of the workplace; however, the leaders appear to be utterly blind to the truth?
- An environment where employees feel uncomfortable to speak up about problems or issues?
- An environment where people felt comfortable to speak up; however, their advice or input keeps getting ignored, so they no longer bother to speak up? “Oh yeah, we’ve known about that for ages, but nobody in management seems to listen or care.”
I do not think that any leader intentionally wants to create an unhealthy environment for their employees. Over time, it can happen without us noticing, and it can be a gradual decline like the movement of tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface. One day suddenly and unexpectedly creating a shock wave throughout the organisation.
Alternatively, it can happen quite quickly, a brilliant idea, a meteoric rise from start-up to young upstart. Your company expands rapidly; your focus is on revenue and servicing your new client’s needs as you bring on more and more employees. Meanwhile, you are utterly unaware of the culture that is growing and emerging within your organisation.
Let’s play catch up
Many people talk and write about new ways of working, business agility, agile mindset, all of which are required to survive and thrive in today’s VUCA World (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). How can we expect to adapt to the demands of today if we are yet to learn simple lessons from 183 years ago?
What is required is a step-change or leap in consciousness, to gain higher levels of awareness our leaders need an upgrade. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or a pill that we can take to kick us into this new modality. It requires deep, continuous work and patience.
The excellent news is that while this is taking place; there are some lessons and simple, practical steps that can make a massive difference to the workplace.
Lessons to be Learned
The ENC contains several key messages (aka lessons), here’s the first lessons and two tips that can help us start to catch up those 183 years:
- The innocent little boy is free from social conventions. If we can create a safe environment and encourage the more junior or free-thinking individuals to speak up first, we can shed the anchors of bias and enable the truth to emerge. Even if these insights are proven wrong, it’s ok. It’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about exploring the full range of possibilities that is important.
The crowd represents the limitations and foolishness of wanting to conform to the majority. It allows a lie to take shape and become a “reality”, ignoring the fact that collective wisdom of the crowd is frequently more accurate than the opinion of 1 expert.
Avoiding Anchor Bias
Tip 1: Share everyone’s insights first, then discuss.
Tip 2: Start with the most junior person first, most senior person(s) share last.
If you pay attention, the characters and behaviours still exist in our workplaces today. We may recognise them; we may talk or even joke about them with our colleagues; however, rarely would we feel safe enough to approach a leader with these insights.
Fortunately, things are slowly starting to change.
The Humble PM represents the little boy in the children’s tale, hopefully inspiring you to speak up in your organisation. I would love to hear from you if the Emperor is still hanging around in your organisation.
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