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Lessons from The Emperor’s New Clothes for Asia in 2018
March 07,2018 [ by Larry Chao ] 1041 Read and 0 Comment

Donald Trump has often been associated with the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for being out of touch with reality and ignorant. But the lessons from this fable also hold true for leaders working in Asia, where employees are often reluctant to tell the truth.

In the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a vain Emperor is duped by two swindlers, who tell the Emperor that they will weave him some fine clothes that can only be seen by those fit for office. In reality, these clothes are invisible and do not exist.

But the Emperor buys into their plan and is forced to play along or else others might think he himself must not be fit for office. So once these clothes are finished, the Emperor pretends like he is putting them on, then proceeds to walk through the town.

Although everyone knows he is not wearing any clothes, nevertheless they bow down before him and compliment his invisible clothes because they are too afraid to contradict him and do not want to be labelled as unfit.

Suddenly one innocent little boy shouts out: “But the Emperor has no clothes.” The Emperor, while embarrassed, keeps up the pretence he is wearing fine clothes to try and salvage his pride.

One lesson from this tale is how difficult it is for people to tell a leader the truth, especially if the truth contradicts what the leader believes. No one wants to be punished for being the bearer of bad news. The best option, therefore, is just to agree or keep silent.

This behaviour is especially prevalent in Asia, where most underlings fear contradicting their boss. Oftentimes, bosses are left scratching their heads wondering why they were never informed beforehand when a problem occurs.

But people are not naïve like the little boy in the tale. Past experience has conditioned employees to hesitate delivering upsetting news. They have learned – or witnessed, negative consequences when people tell the truth.

Of course, the reluctance to speak up undermines effective decision-making. My guess is that most enlightened bosses would prefer to know the truth, rather than to be uninformed. The challenge is how to create a work culture that encourages people to be more straightforward.

The first step is to establish trust and respect between bosses and their employees. This begins by debunking the mindset that senior people know more and should not be challenged. If a boss treats other people as inferior and knowing less, chances are this will reinforce the fear that comes with disagreement. Even worse, if a boss “punishes the messenger” when he/she receives bad news, the boss may never know whether news is real or whether it is fake news.

However, if a boss strives to establish a relationship of mutual respect, this sows the seeds for healthier rapport. For example, the boss inspires rather than intimidates, listens with an open mind, expresses gratitude, admits mistakes. Eventually those around the boss might dare to speak the truth without fear of reprisal.

Of course, to expect complete transformation is unreasonable. There will always be bosses who instil fear and employees who would never stick their necks out no matter how safe they feel. But even small gains in mutual respect, where people are more involved and can express how they really feel, can enhance performance and make an organization more successful.

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