Who's afraid of your opinion?

Oct 29 2009 by Charles Helliwell Print This Article

One of my favourite movie quotes comes from Clint Eastwood, portraying 'dirty' Harry Callaghan in The Dead Pool: "Well, opinions are like assholes; everybody has one". And he's right. Whether you're a commentator, a writer, a speaker, a public figure, a celebrity or just an average Jo(e), it's your given right to have an opinion on anything, everything or nothing.

So its sad that so many people decline to express their viewpoint or share their opinion freely and openly. After all, an individual's opinion is just that; it's theirs to keep to themselves or share as they choose.

The challenge for most people is the fear they harbour about whether their opinions are right or wrong. But surely, the personal nature of any opinion which any of us may harbour is neither good or bad, right nor wrong; it's unique to us. It might be shared by others and it will certainly have been influenced by situations, circumstances and other people, but it will fundamentally be ours to do with whatever we choose.

And this brings me to the dilemma of what opinions are and why they are consistently sought out - and then rejected - in the workplace.

This is never more apparent than listening to politicians trying to wriggle off the hook of responsibility and apportion blame elsewhere than at their own doorstep. They are the elite in this field of abrogating responsibility for their actions (or lack of them), and now this seems to have found its way into the everyday culture of the workplace.

Managers who don't know how to lead and organisations which care little about their own self-improvement, have only resulted in embedding this culture of dispensable and irrelevant opinion-seeking into the everyday mix of employee engagement strategies.

In the old days, it used to be the suggestion box placed strategically next to the coffee machine or water cooler. Today organisations have at least learned how to mask this exercise under the cloak of openness, by holding 'team meetings' and company 'off-sites' at which employees are encouraged to engage openly and freely.

In reality, though, these are nothing more than exercises in 'smoke and mirrors' so that organisations can demonstrate to their owners and shareholders that they have gone through the exercise of 'engaging' with their workforce.

Why is it that these organisations and the managers who are tasked to lead them, are so fearful of the opinions of those who work for them? Could they really be so insecure in their ivory towers, with their executive washrooms, private dining rooms and chauffeur driven limousines, that the opinions of their workforce are going to make any significant difference to the strategies they are developing and implementing?

I hardly think so. Their insecurity is much, much deeper rooted than that. It is based on the certainty that they, and their executive flunkies, don't hold all the answers (yet as often as not, their compensation and benefits packages will suggest that, even if they don't have all the answers, then they should).

So the very concept of seeking opinion from the floor is something that undermines executive authority, because it challenges the illusion that those leading organisations really do know what they are doing.

Perhaps if senior managers acted with the courage of their convictions and put their egos in the bottom drawer, organisations everywhere might just start to realise that the best ideas often come from within and that the assholes, as Mr Eastwood deftly put it, are not the opinions of others - they are those who choose to ignore the opportunities these opinions present.