#133 Big Careers, Small Children: John Higgins – Unlocking the Power of Silence: Creating Inclusive Workplaces and Balancing Work-Life Dynamics

Big Careers, Small Children: John Higgins - Unlocking the Power of Silence: Creating Inclusive Workplaces and Balancing Work-Life Dynamics
Can silence be a powerful tool in the workplace? Prefer to read this interview? Scroll down for the transcript. Join us as we explore this intriguing concept with this week's guest, John Higgins, an academic researcher and expert on speaking truth to power and workplace activism. In this episode, John shares with Verena how embracing silence can help us build connections, understand others' stories, and foster a more inclusive environment. They also discuss the importance of changing norms for working parents and recognising the consequences of privilege in the workplace. John offers practical advice on navigating workplace politics, creating equality of voice, and building allyship to support a more inclusive environment. Plus, discover the role of silence in our personal and professional relationships and how it can lead to deeper connections and more meaningful conversations. Buy John's book “The Great Unheard at Work: Understanding Voice and Silence in Organisations” via the Routledge Bookshop, using the code TGUW25 for a 25% discount. (correct at time of publishing) Find out more by going to www.radicalod.com or www.JohnHigginsResearch.com Show Notes:  
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Episode Transcript

0:00:00 - John Higgins

You know I used to go in to do these talks. I'd be very tense, very nervous,Ii'd be really tight, I  could feel it like that. I'd be quite aggressive. And I said I saw the audience as the enemy. You know, the goal was to get through. And she said “no, no, no”. For her, the audience were her best friends. They were going to be the source of all her ideas. And a good improvisational comedian is absolutely working the audience, and they feel that they are part of co-creating the experience.


0:00:32 - Verena Hefti

Welcome to the Big Career Small Children podcast. My name is Verena Hefti and I believe that no one should have to choose between becoming a CEO and enjoying their young children. For far too long, brilliant people have found themselves stuck on the career ladder when they have children, and that leads to gender inequality and the same stale, mostly male middle-class people leading our organisations. We must change this, and I hope that many of you listening to this podcast will progress to the most senior leadership roles possible where you make decisions that make our world a better place. Thank you for listening. Beyond the podcast, I am the CEO and founder of the Social Enterprise Leaders Plus. You can find out all about our work on the website, and the best way to be kept in touch with things is the newsletter on leadersplus.org/newsletter.


In this week's episode, I'm talking to John Higgins about silence, about how we can use silence to be heard better, but also how silence in the wrong moment can make it easier for discrimination to happen. Enjoy the conversation.


0:01:48 - John Higgins

Rather than start with my work, let me start with my family. And so I’m married to Rosie. We met at university, so we go back a long time. We've probably met about nearly 40 years ago. She has been a very successful investment banker, then gave that up to joint something called the Carbon Trust and has been active in the green space for again for at least 20 years now. I have two daughters, both now in their mid to late 20s, one of whom is a civil servant and is very committed to the whole public service ethos. And my younger daughter sadly has a bad long COVID in a very unfunny way, but she is managing to keep doing her PhD, which is on a fourth century AD ancient Greek writer, so she can take her time with it because you know, that's the pace at which it operates.


I have one formal son-in-law soon to be, and he's a really interesting chap. So he started off, he was working in the fast food world, being a manager of one of those things. Then he tried to become a carpenter, to discover that as a profession is beccoming seriously de-skilled, and now he's moved into the FinTech world. He's a developer. So very innovative, very flexible, extraordinarily personable young man. It really gives me hope for the future of what the masculine can be. And I'll call him this, my de facto other son-in-law. He's been a member of the family for a long time now is editor for the New York Times. So, very much a politically astute, very conscious of how the news agenda gets created, whose interest it serves and that sort of thing. So that's my - I'll take a cue from you as to whether this is too much or too little.


0:03:41 - Verena Hefti

Not at all. I'm imagining the dinner table conversation when you all get together. It sounds absolutely fascinating. But tell me about you. What do you do for work?


0:03:50 - John Higgins

So I have, for the last nearly 20 years or so, I've been an academic researcher at long-standing relationship with a doctoral and master's program in organisational change. And I spend a lot of time talking with people, engaging with groups. The core of my work since about 2013-14 has been into speaking truth to power And that then segwayed into workplace activism, which, as you can imagine, is I've got to try and not use rude words to describe this, but it's a contentious area and you meet a lot of very charged responses and you meet a lot of very defensive responses and a lot of very confused responses. And this is where I've really discovered the advantages of my age and life cycle is that I've learned not to try and fix people and just to hear them, and over the years, in Myers-Briggs terms, i've really got seriously in touch with my F, which I’d buried 10 fathoms deep. My father was a colonel in the army.And I just love that sense of connection with the stories of others. And often and this is linked to my work in exploration into taking silence seriously at work, is that people are very rarely seriously heard. To actually just sit with someone or walk with someone and just be interested in their story, and again, you can't fake that.


It is this moment of, I just have found there may be one or two exceptions, but everybody has our native intelligence, our native capacity to know the world, which is extraordinary if you get out of the way. And often as part of my work, my doctoral work into what all the other people work into, what organisations could be like, is the way that modern organisations work still is rooted in early 20th century production line thinking. And they are anti-life, anti-human, and the whole thing is there is so much capacity if we allow people to flourish. So that's my optimism. My professional life is trying to get the organisational, what passes for common sense to be seriously questioned.


0:06:11 - Verena Hefti

Not an easy challenge at all. Interesting. But let me ask you one question I ask of everybody: What  did you used to believe about combining a big career with young children that you don't believe anymore?


0:06:22 - John Higgins

That you can do it all, that you can get by without making hard choices. We ran, for a time, Rosie and I, we both did sort of very conventional high-flying careers. I was a mainstream management consultant when I first had children, when they were young, and, you know, we had full-time childcare and I looked back on it and it was exhausting And it was, I think we probably took our relationship as a marriage to the very edge because we just, it was not sustainable because we were trying to accept the corporate norms of, you know, work hard and do all the good things and we didn't manage our boundaries very well with our workplaces. And then we learned to do that, and I don't think I said in my thing that one of the pivotal things I then decided to do in 2002, my kids were relatively young, I walked away from my career at that point and actually became prime carer for my daughters, which is still unusual for men.


And my wife also stepped back from being an investment banker at that time and took on work that, I think, has much more meaning because it's in the green space, but also that was just so much more sensible in terms of the demands and expectations.


And it is this, you know, what I accepted was I thought that the workplace would pay attention to my wider needs And what I have really, what I really learned was you have to take care of that. And if I'm a generous, I'd say that organisations, the corporate sector, and this is both public and private, ethically neutral in terms of their relationship to how people are. I think they are corrosive and they tend to the exploitative, because there's this endless drive to efficiency, the endless squeezing. I always think of the absurdity of, I remember it was one of the US investment banks just part of its care and concern for its female employees was said we will pay to freeze your eggs. And you just unpick that and say what does that tell you about how you see people, how you see relationships, how you value someone's life? It's like once you've finished, once we've finished with you, once you're a husk, you can go off and do all this child-rearing stuff.


0:08:46 - Verena Hefti

Yeah, I think what we definitely agree on is this idea that we need to change the norms, And they're, obviously, it will look different how you do that will really depend on where you are in your life, what is important to you and so on. But we really do have to change the norms of what working looks like.


0:09:03 - John Higgins

And the bits of the light bulb moments were in the late 1990s. I got introduced to the work of people like Carol Gilligan, again, the feminist psychologist. And again it's all this stuff about that as human beings, it's growth in communion, it's growth in connection. So in this conversation with you, I'm going to walk away from this as knowing the world differently because of the questions you ask and the way you are with me, and it is this sense of taking relationships seriously. I mean there's chapter and verse which is, if you just concentrate on the task, eventually everything falls over because we take no attention to the relational space.


Anne Huff wrote this brilliant article called Wives of the Corporation. And she says that because what a lot of women wind up doing in the workplace is they wind up doing all the stuff they do at home, which is to take care of the relationships.  If Uncle Albert's being a complete pain, they'll smooth things over and make it possible and make everyone think. And they come into the workplace and which is still filled with a lot of narcissistic men, and they will do the same work and it's invisible work. And also because it comes from the domestic sphere, of course, it doesn't count, it's not valued. And this lack of emotional sophistication, I mean and this is, I mean leaping ahead, I think, maybe some of your other questions, but it's, I learned so much from being the prime carer of my daughters for a good chunk of time. I grew up and then when I go back into the workplace and I look at the behaviours of people who have not, to my mind, seriously invested in aspects of their life outside of fantastically naive working relationships, that they are immature. And again, because it's very hard, particularly if you're a working mum and the few working dads who take time off to do that to go back into the workplace and say you know what I'm going to bring some serious emotional sophistication because actually what passes in organisations is silly.


I mean, I have another friend who wrote this great paper called Children in the Boardroom. She had cut her teeth working with troubled teenagers in Brussels and when she went into various boardrooms all she could see was ah, this is repeat behaviours from what I saw when I was dealing with difficult 15 year olds. And it is this idea, the emotional incontinence and incapacity of often highly privileged men who have never had to pay attention, basically the consequences of their ill behaviour has gone unaddressed.


0:11:36 - Verena Hefti

What I think needs to happen is that, with this whole podcast, I'm hoping to inspire working parents to get into more senior roles in ways that work for them, and to change the norms and make it so that you do have different behaviours. And, as you say, there are obviously lots of fantastic men who do things differently, but there are cultures that are really exclusionary, where working parents are excluded and you have to fit in and you have to almost strip off your home life and fit into those senior roles.


Let's get stuck into your book, which I thought was extremely thought provoking, and you mentioned silence as how you respond in difficult situations, and one thing I'm hearing a lot from the listeners from this podcast and working parents we work with is that they get subliminal messages along the lines of ah, you know she can't make Fridays, ah, she's lazy and looks after the kida. Or, clearly, now he's taking shared parental leave, he's obviously not that committed to his career, and just these very, very subtle messages, and I think that's just really, really difficult to deal with. So I'm interested if you are watching this happening, if you're watching a message like. That being said, what is the consequence of staying silent and not saying anything?


0:12:54 - John Higgins

You're part of an informal non-disclosure agreement. You are, and it is the bystander effect. you are colluding with it. And, by the way, it's very hard not to collude. And the temptation is always to put all the responsibility on the person. So it is as people, I think in your prompt questions when people roll their eyes. “I've got to leave at half three because school ends. I've got to be there to pick up the kids” And it's immediately somehow you're a slacker, you're not really committed and all that stuff. And it is this thing of pause, catching that moment, because everything's hiding in plain sight and actually falling out. But just say, “can we pay attention to the assumptions we're making here”? And it's the assumption that the person that's having to leave to pick up the kids who has to do the work, whereas actually it is the responsibility of the most powerful person in the room to catch the assumptions in the moment And that is and this is where all the work on activism actually comes in is that it is the most privileged who have the most capacity to change the norm, and yet it's rather like a whistleblowing policy. We put all the responsibility on the least powerful. So if you are a busy, pressured mom or dad and you say, right, it's 3:30 school kicking out time. I need to be out the door by three o'clock. It's to make sure that people understand your motivation, but it's also the job of the manager, of the leader, in that context, to be able to name why that matters. And we're into the politics and the allyship of it, and we talk about having allies when it comes to matters, let's say, around race and the white allyship.


This is where, as the men, you've gotta, your walking, particularly because largely it will be the women still doing the pickup. but if you are a man, you are walking a little bit of a tightrope, which is you've got to not sound like a rescuer, you've got to mean it. I think that's the prime thing. You've got to negotiate with the person who's having to call out.


And like, let me just, there's a story that absolutely, I think encapsulates how men can do this. It comes from another piece of work I'm doing on  young women in their 20s and 30s and men and relationships, and this woman told this story in which she's a singer in a band and the rest of the band are all men. And by and large, she attracts a lot of fairly neanderthal comments from men when she's singing or one thing. Anyway, there was one setting, but they were rehearsing. there were setting things up and this man came up and said something to her. One of the other members of the band came up to her and just looked at her and said “are we okay with that”? And I thought that was brilliant, because what he's doing is he's saying he's letting her know right, I'm here with you. And, by the way, this is our problem.


Oh, and by the way, I'm not going to rescue you. We're going to choose together. Do you want me to? Should we call this person out or not? And it is this thing about when you are somebody who has power in those sorts of concepts. It's saying how do I use that in a way to build the other person up, lets them feel that I'm there as an ally and doesn't strip them of their agency. It might be at that particular moment. I don't want to have a fight about this, but I want to be able to have the choice and to be given the feeling that I had the choice.


0:16:09 - Verena Hefti

So how do you influence your senior leader to act like that? Because I know what you said, that it's not your responsibility. It should be your senior leader's responsibility to challenge these assumptions. But how do you get your senior leader to act like that if you are the only let's say the only working mother experiencing these comments and no one really gets what it's like for you?


0:16:32 - John Higgins

I mean, this is a question of politics and it's about being very sussed. And there's something about, okay, how can you play the corporate system? And I don't mean this in some sort of Machiavellian way, but given that in most institutional settings now there is policies that you cannot discriminate against working mothers, there is something about actually bring that to bear and explore. You know, you just trying to be the sole hero on this will burn you out. And again in the wider activism and this isn't the idea of parents as activists and it's the idea that you have to learn from the activist handbook on this. You can be the campaigner, but by and large you'll do that on your own and you will burn out. So you've got to find some supporters. So you've got to find your home base. So find other people who've had that experience. Maybe it'd be exploring with, maybe one of the other men in there, and so I was just talking about. You know, if you know they've got young children, and again, there's nothing quite, you know, a halfway decent man with young children will really get what it's like and the pressures you know, because he will only be able to do what he's doing because somebody else is doing that at home. So it's the allyship is absolute key.


The other thing is to who is the person that this senior leader can hear, and it's sometimes that you might not be the person to give the message, and you know, you have to engage with lots of historic misogyny and all these things, and it is a question of working with the reality of the situation, and it is you really have to ask yourself this who can be the purveyor of this message? Because the temptation is to take all the responsibility on yourself. Right, I've got to do it.


The other thing to think about is and this is something that senior leaders should think about is where should I have this conversation? Because probably it's not best to be had five minutes before you, just when the eyes have been rolled, you're just dashing out the door, because then you're going to be concentrating on something else. You're probably in a heightened emotional state, so therefore you're likely to say things badly. So and this is the two way thing is, as I'm not going to use the phrase as an activist mum, the question is okay, how can I speak to be heard? And, by the way, that it absolutely rests with the senior leader, which is how can I make myself available to hear, and it is this whole thing about,  where is the neutral space? Is this something where actually we need to meet up at coffee the next morning? Is it where would, and always, as the activist mum, where would I feel comfortable and invite the senior leader to join you Or the person who you think could be your sponsor or your ally on this?


It's a cunning relational game where you are trying to think about, righteous anger gets you somewhere and there's something about you need a bit of righteous anger knocking around because otherwise there's, not to drawl on, but you're to really make a difference. Is this whole notion of tempered radical, which is a really difficult position to be in, because you're hardcore activists who just want to throw the book at the company for failing to, you know, provide things By and large, you get all the company defensive routines and they'll say “I will put in a process, we'll do this”, and all you're meant with is just layer upon layer of bureaucracy. You're not met with a willingness to change hearts and minds.


0:19:53 - Verena Hefti

I think everyone listening, and definitely me included, will have been silent at some point when someone said something that was ‘off’. And I distinctly remember I was on the playground once and we were talking about lice and how to recognise that a child has lice and then out of the blue, completely out of the blue, one of the other months mentioned that in her country only gypsies had lice. You know, I respected that person, I didn't expect that at all and I said something but it was definitely not, like, I think back now and I realised like wow, that was racism. I should have mentioned the word racism and I didn't because I was, I mean, no excuses, but I didn't, and partly because I was just not ready at all and I was running around my toddler who was going all over the place.


And I guess from that question I'm trying to understand when you're caught off guard and you see a comment, that where you should say something but you don't say it in a way that you should be saying I think I meant I'm ashamed about it, but I would say something like oh well, actually in Switzerland everyone has lice, which is the worst… I was just trying to come back a little bit. It was so bad, it was horrendous. I'm actually going red now as I'm saying this, it was such a bad response and I come…anyways. I do not understand why I didn't respond with actually, this is a racist comment and etc. etc. So I feel like maybe I've overshared here but yeah, what do you do to make sure that you respond in moments all the time when you should be saying something?


0:21:38 - John Higgins

It's one of those things, when people catch you off guard, and I was thinking that wasn't a bad response, actually. I was thinking, what you were doing, somebody wanted to say lice was associated with a particular ethnic group and actually I thought that's not a bad response to say “you know what? Where I come from, everybody's got it”. So you normalised what they were trying to use as a vehicle for demonising a group. So actually I thought that was quite a good comeback.


But my thing I wrote down as you're saying that it's this: you will be caught off guard. And the thing you need to buy for yourself is buy some time. And it's this whole thing of how do I, particularly when someone says something, a comment that gives you a really strong visceral emotional reaction, and it's this thing of I need to collect myself now. And then you might still choose, if you are a comfortably confrontational person, to go to the “I found your comment offensive”. Would be someone who's comfortable with that. If you're ‘the buying yourself time’ sort of a person, which is where I would probably come from I might pause and try and say: “I found that a really problematic thing to hear, could you just say a bit more about that?” And it's this thing of then getting them to do some more work. And you've given them a cue that they've said something that's unsettled you, but you're then, rather than having to do all the work yourself, you're throwing it back at them to, in a sense, explain yourself, and it works from the identifying of “I need to understand where this person is coming from”, which, I mean, I think Jesus Christ and the Buddha are pretty good at that. The rest of us, you know, stumble towards it most of the time and fall short.


But the more we can not try and do too much of the work ourselves and actually try and understand where the other person's coming from, and, if they've done a throwaway comment like that, that’s something racist, something sexist. It's for them to become curious about themselves. That's your goal, because actually you are not going to convert them, and to just get into a shouting match is no good to anybody. But if your goal is, and particularly if this is a relationship that actually you want to go on, shaming the other is a very ineffective way of creating anything but hostile silence, and this is where your intention is: is this is a relationship where, which, you know, because they've said something unusual, this relationship could shift profoundly now. It could shift to a level of depth where, if they come back to you and said, “well, well, that's what I was brought up to believe”, you say, “is that true? Where does that come from?” And they might then begin to actually have this horrible feeling that you know, I learned that from my grandmother and that it might be, this is, you know, the growth and connection stuff. Whereas if you just splat them, shame them, it's rather like if you shame somebody when you're leaving at you know five to three to go to do the school run up and they say, “god, you're a bit of a part timer”. And you turned around and said, “actually, I'm working damn hard. I've been here since eight o'clock and, by the way, I'll be working again from eight o'clock this evening, thank you very much”.


That slapping shame, which I'm sure a lot of working parents have wanted to do, all that's done is shame that person into silence. And, you know, that relationship has degraded. So that was a very again sort of many, so many things you know were raised by what you said there.


0:25:14 - Verena Hefti

Interesting. You're also looking at silence in quite a different way. so silence as weight. And I'm very passionate about having as many listeners of this podcast heard by others. Can you say a bit more about how you can use silence to communicate your message better? For your message to land better?


0:25:38 - John Higgins

So I was immediately thinking, well, I'll just pause there for a couple of seconds. But, as you'll have noticed, I've been speaking in quite an animated fashion. That's my preference. But using and deliberately doing it now… So, if I'm going to pause… and immediately I'm saying it's like a parody of a TED talk, and it is this thing of slowing right dow.  And what, you know, it's a good NLP trick, which is, you know, to pace and lead, which is you join somebody at the pace of the conversation that you want to do, and if you want to slow them down, you then start slowing yourself down. And you also, I mean, it actually can be used quite manipulatively. You can use pauses to extend the time for you to think, the time for you to occupy the space in a conversation, but you could also use pauses as that opportunity to draw the other in. So, right now I'm going to pause and turn to you and say “so, how do you use a less garrulous, how do you introduce a more measured way of talking into your life?”


0:26:52 - Verena Hefti

This makes me think of the eternal challenge I, and I'm sure lots of other people, face. I can completely see how pauses make what you say more impactful, but it's so easy to keep talking and especially when you're nervous, you have a tendency to talk much more. Did you ever have that challenge yourself, or have you been always naturally good at shutting up and keeping silence? Let’s say you're doing a presentation or talk.


0:27:22 - John Higgins

[laughing] The more anxious I am, the less good I am at being quiet. There's a lovely, I work with a voice coach called Kira Emsley and she's very good on the physiology of speaking. And she just, it is this whole thing, you pay attention to your body. It's the idea that speaking is a physical activity. So one of her lovely things is one of the least helpful things you can get is to be told take a deep breath before you're speaking, because if you do that, suddenly you're up like this because you're suddenly full of air. It's this idea you take a few breaths, get your oxygen level, but it's all about paying attention to your larynx, paying attention to your shoulders, paying attention to your mental state, and it's actually, you know, the physiology of speaking really matters


And in terms of my comfort with silence or being asked things I'm not used to has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. I was brought up in a very performative way where the goal was to steamroller people, and also I was scared of hearing things that I didn't agree with, scared of hearing things that I found embarrassing to talk about. And now I play with my embarrassment. So I remember sitting in on a lecture by a Senior Chief Constable, one of the few women senior chief constables in the country, and she was talking about the menopause. And you should have seen me. I was just absolutely stark red, because in her particular case, she said, you know it was ironic, she said this great thing for her was her menopause showed up as a mental health problem which you know the male dominated senior management was very comfortable with. As she said, she never actually had to use the V word, she never had to talk about her vagina, which for a lot of men causes huge embarrassment. I'm a very repressed ex public schoolboy. I can assure you I am deeply embarrassed talking about this to you, but there's something about playing with one's embarrassment rather than feeling that to defend it.


The difference of attitude came. I was once giving a talk alongside somebody from the comedy store players, and this was a long time ago, and I used to be worried that people would ask me questions I wouldn't know the answers to. I didn't know how to be inexpert. I didn't know how not to know, and being perfect was I had that dreadful script that somehow I had to be better than everybody, rather than the normal twisted timber that we're all made of. You know, I used to go in to do these talks, I'd be very tense, very nervous, I'd be really tight. I could feel it, like that. I've been quite aggressive And I said I saw the audience as the enemy. You know, the goal was to get through. And she said “no, no”. For her, the audience were her best friends. They were going to be the source of all her ideas. And a good improvisational comedian is absolutely working the audience. And they feel that they are part of co-creating the experience. So in a sense I wanted to silence the audience, whereas she wanted to give them a voice, so that she could have a voice And that generosity of spirit, that knowledge of “gosh, together we will be better if we really hear each other and play to each other's strengths. You be a good audience, you give me good ideas and I'll be a great comedian”. I mean, I got [it] intellectually, but it took me a good few years on from that to really embrace it.


0:30:33 - Verena Hefti

Thank you for sharing and being so honest about your own experience, and you also talk about using silence to enable people to speak up. What have you personally learned about using silence to help people speak up, especially when you're the boss?


0:30:51 - John Higgins

It is all about dialling down your status, and I'm just thinking about it, equality of voice is so easy to think about. The first thing is don't pretend that we're all equal, and that's if you want to silence people, that is the most irritating thing you can do. And it's this: how do you make it safe for other people? And if you are the senior person with the power and authority, it links back to the comment about what you do as someone who's been marginalised, who's been having people roll their eyes at you, then you've got work to do. But as a senior person, actually the responsibility of “I want to hear from you and my job is to find out where's the good place to go to”. And I can think of two stories, one for another book I wrote.


I interviewed someone who is a senior leader in a city headhunting firm, who also happened to be a Benedictine lay monk, a strange combination. And he introduced me to the rule of St Benedict, which is to always listen to the youngest monk in the monastery -, and that means serious - and then saying where will the youngest monk, or nun, feel comfortable? Because it's your job as the senior person to go where they are comfortable, not where you are comfortable.


And I’ve got to add another story from a senior military commander who was in charge of all the helicopters in this country. And because it's a political job, you get driven around all the country And he insisted on being driven around by the youngest cadet, which could be a young man or a young woman, and I always thought that must have been terrifying. You know, you've been driven around 17 year old their first time, driving into London, wow. But he said you're in the car for a long time and they will start saying things. And he had a strict rule that will ever get said in the car stays in the car. And his other thing was that within the military it's almost like the middle management layer of the non commissioned officers. And he said it's very hard for him as the senior leader to get to the experience of the real juniors, and so that driver was the key source of information. And it was his job for - if you're in a car for a couple of hours and you invite the youngsters to speak, he'll say stuff, and if he says something or she says something that you're uncomfortable with, you've got to work out another way to find that information because you can't break the confidence.


The other thing about, in terms of, you know, breaking the silence and particularly breaking the shackles of the formal reporting system which I can do chapter on verse, and why formal reporting systems are a deep silencing activity. But I again, I went to give a talk some years ago again to another police outfit and the senior sergeant there said, in order to hear from the constables on the beat, he would go on the beat with them, go and join them as they do their work, whether it was in the car or on foot. Because he said, if you spend a day, you know, a few hours together while you're doing the job, one you're useful to them because you're an extra pair of eyes and secondly, you get to get a feel for them. You know, you become normal.


As someone then said to me, you've got to have the small conversations before you can have the big conversations. And often when you land on people who need to have the big conversation, which is, you know, we need to talk about sex discrimination in this company, that's a big conversation and if we've never had the little conversations, they've been silenced. Well, boy, suddenly the stakes are raised very high.


0:34:17 - Verena Hefti

Interesting. And it's funny that you mentioned cars, because a lot of our senior leader mentors who do have children or teenagers, say the one absolute best reason to keep the car is because when you're driving them to their many engagements they will tell you stuff. And this will be the only time that they tell you stuff, because they're locked in the car with you. Yeah, interesting to hear you say that.


0:34:43 - John Higgins

And also think about the social architecture of the car. You are not staring into each other's eyes, you're both looking forward. And again, it's time bound because you'll usually be going from somewhere. And actually if you're going on a longish drive, again, you can choose that. It can have a rhythm. You can allow for silence, You can allow for just thinking. You know, if they've said something or you've said something, you don't have to rush to respond. You've got time to think about it.


And again, within the workplace we strip that all out. Suddenly, it was rather like you thinking and responding to somebody saying that you know, in her country it's only gipsies who have lice, well, you know, hang on, you've suddenly got to have that conversation, resolve it all in about 30 seconds well, five seconds Whereas when you're sitting in the car you are not staring in each other's eyes, which is quite either a loving or a hostile act. And you have the time to chew things over, to let the digestion happen.


And again and I think this is on all of us, particularly senior people, to realise that cutting conversations short means that we silence substantive conversations. And it's all, I mean that I will go on a minor rant about poorly thought through organisational processes. We think that things like surveys can be a substitute for in person conversations. All they do is remind people of the lack of personal contact, And it's this idea of the goal. Silence happens when there's relational distance, when people don't know each other, or all I know is of you as an object, as some sort of a mask really. The more I can see of you as a fully rounded, complex human being, the more you can see me as a fully rounded, complex human being, the better we know how to get the best from each other, And a survey does exactly the opposite, because it insists on me talking about my experience in ways that somebody else has decided.


0:36:46 - Verena Hefti

It's so interesting to hear you speak about it and silence in that way. We do a Fellowship programme which is for working parents, to support and progress their careers, and for one particular workshop we invite their line managers, if they have one, and we use aspects of the thinking environment which essentially mean that there are two people in a pair and there's a question, one person speaks and the other person shuts up for 15 minutes. And that's all we do. And it's really funny how many line managers say I've never done this, I've never sat for 15 minutes and just listened to my direct report, and they say it's been absolutely transformative. And I think it makes me chuckle, not in an aggressive way. I'm sure my team would say I interrupt them all the time. But isn't that unbelievable that it's such a basic thing, can be so transformative, and yet we just don't stay silent.


0:37:44 - John Higgins

And it's because the attention often is, you know, a lot of people are looking up the organisation, so the line managers are often looking up to there. And it is this thing of, we have this very naive, rationalistic view of understanding relationships. We think it's a ‘nice to’. And this cult of efficiency means that I mean, as you were describing it then, I mean, it's brilliant and it's great you do that, but it's mind boggling that we think that that shouldn't be normal practice. I mean, how else are you going to get to know somebody?


I'm a big fan of, whenever we get groups together, of, you know, the old walk and talk idea. There's nothing quite like walking alongside somebody. Because, again, it avoids the direct eye contact. And it's this thing of when you are walking alongside somebody one, the physiology kicks in. And again it's this idea that we are physical beings. And you are also out of an office, you're in an environment and you are people in the world wanting to find out more about each other, rather than if you're sitting in an office, you know, or even on a Zoom call in a very managed way, where somebody's acutely aware of time. It is the, I mean, time management, you know, time is money, I mean, our culture is soaked in attitudes which are anti-relational.


0:39:06 - Verena Hefti

Very true. It's actually really funny that you mentioned time, because… [laughs] You're going to hate me for this now, but I've been told to keep the podcast recordings under 45 minutes by my lovely team because apparently that's what people like. So I'm going to ask you, but first of all, if there's anything else you want to say, then please do say so. And I would like to also ask you, if there's someone listening who really is touched by what you've said and wants to play around with being more silent, but doesn't know how, what one or two small practical things could they try out this week to try to stay more silent?


0:39:45 - John Higgins

Oh, let's focus on that. The phrase mental margarita is unfortunately going through my head the whole time. I think it's to bear in mind a lovely image that somebody gave me, which is you know, our spontaneous response is like a six year old child. You know, when you're five or six years old, you leap out of bed and you're running down the stairs. You know, really quickly, you wake up quickly, one with luck, you're not drinking or anything like that. You are in absolutely and you're buzzing. That's your childish response. It's out there and it will always be there.


The goal is to remember you have an adult response and it's always to remember that it takes a bit of time. You've got to find your glasses. You might have had a glass of wine too much the night before And you've got to try and get your hand on the kid before it runs out of the door at the bottom of the thing. And it's this thing of don't beat yourself up for wanting to have a knee jerk, violent reaction, a childish reaction, Just that is normal. That is ordinary, And it's to then realise you have a choice. Your choice is to think OK, I've now got the kid. Do I actually, on this occasion, letting the kid run free, that would be a good thing. But then it is to realise there is an adult voice you can use as well.


And the other thing. So that's the internal work. The external thing is to realise, and I said right at the start of this, you are not alone. And if you are alone I'd seriously, you know, find people to team up with or become allies or trusted people or just move, because if you're completely isolated you're not in a good place. It's really invest in your network, in your allies, and know who are the people you can turn to, where you can just say “can I have a vent, please?” And it's also, when people come to you, ask them, "Can I just check, do you just need to download at me or do you want me to sort of make suggestions?” And it's to negotiate that right up front. And usually you can pick up that, and particularly with people you know well, whichis, you just need to talk at me to work through the heat and just talk it through.


And we often underestimate how powerful simply being present while somebody else thinks things through is, [Verena: “Absolutely”]  And it's for us, we often think, well, I've got nothing from it. I'd say baloney. If you really listen to somebody else, that means you will be touched by their lives. You will understand them better. You will understand the world better. You will be a richer human being as a result. So all I did was listen. No, no, no, no. That is the biggest gift most of us can give and, by the way, we get a lot from it.


0:42:33 - Verena Hefti

Very true, Very well said. I found the concept of your book absolutely fascinating and there's so much more we could talk about. Can you remind our listeners what's the title, where can people find out about it and also where can they connect with you and find out about your work?


0:42:48 - John Higgins

The book is called “The Great Unheard at Work: Understanding Voice and Silence in Organisations” And you can get it to go through the Routledge Bookshop And I think if you put the code TGUW, which stands for The Great Unheard at Work, so TGUW25, you get a 25% discount


And you can find out more by going to www.radicalod.com or wwwJohnHigginsResearch.com


And actually somebody I haven't mentioned yet, is the fantastic work with Professor Megan Reitz is www.meganreitz.com, so that's M-E-G-A-N-R-E-I-T-Z.com, and she really is brilliant. She is also the mother of a 12 and 14 year old and she's a business school professor. She's in the Thinkers 50, and I've co-worked alongside her and she is just one of the great people.


0:43:47 - Verena Hefti

As are you. [both laugh] It's been incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you so much for coming onto the podcast.


0:43:55 - John Higgins

Well, it's been my pleasure.


0:43:58 - Verena Hefti

Thank you for listening today. If you enjoyed the podcast and you think a nonjudgmental community of support would be helpful to you, then I would love to hear from you as an application to the Leaders Plus Fellowship programme. As you know, probably this is designed to help you to identify where you want your career to head and we'll give you a lot of support and encouragement along the way. And then most importantly, to help you make it possible to get there practically whilst being present with your family in whatever way you want that to be. Previous fellows have said it made them take really courageous steps that they never thought possible, and also that they made lifelong friends and connections. In our last cohort, more than half have got promoted or got additional senior responsibility by the end of the program. And that's particularly impressive because most of them work part time or flexibly. Plus I think they've all got quite mavericky, in a good way. They are all involved in some shape or form of driving change for working parents, be that mentoring other parents, be that changing policy in their organisations, whatever fits at that moment in their lives. It only takes about half a day, a week. Sorry, that would be a lot, half a month. So I think it's more than doable. It's been designed with parents in mind. You can find all the details leadersplus.org/crosssectorfellowship.

And also, if you want us to talk to your employer, to your organisation, about offering this to their employees, just let me know and my colleague Jo or I can have a conversation with them. My email is verena@leadersplus.org.

On a completely unrelated note, I also feel passionate about gender equality in podcasting, and I've recently learned the top 100 podcast etc, is extremely male dominated, I think 90% male dominated or something like that, depending on what stat you look at. And I thought that needs to change urgently. So if you want to help and push forward a female led podcast - first of all listen to a female led podcast and if you think this podcast is is good and useful, then do share it, leave reviews and do all those things that increases the algorithms prominence. So yeah, for example, a WhatsApp or Signal message to some friends with a link to the podcast is always very welcome and very helpful and hopefully it will help us smash this particular glass ceiling in the podcast world!

See you next week and thank you so much for your support.

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