Does your organisation suffer from managerial ventriloquism?

22nd April by Karen Smart

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In business there is an undesirable thing called managerial ventriloquism. It is when managers talk for their team or their superiors instead of letting them speak for themselves. This is not just unbecoming but can be detrimental to the manager’s credibility too.

When managers speak for their team or those higher up in the business, it kills creativity, hinders trust and can stop people from growing. But there is a solution which can help reduce it and that is to equip managers with coaching skills to improve their self-awareness and communication.

Understanding managerial ventriloquism

Managerial ventriloquism is essentially speaking for others and is a common practice in organisations. As Dr David Hollis of Sheffield University and Alex Wright of Audencia Business School say in their excellent MIT Sloan Management Review article, managerial ventriloquism “can be valuable, and even essential, to fulfilling the role of a manager. But when done badly, it can harm managers’ credibility, damage company culture, and hurt their organisations’ reputation and profits.”

Statements such as ‘head office needs answers’ or ‘the board needs this by the close of business’ are good examples of management ventriloquism in action. These types of announcements can be commonplace but could be masking how little authority the manager has or just how ingrained such behaviour has become. As Hollis and Wright highlight in their article, “over time, speaking for others in this way engenders a managerial culture where responsibility is forever being passed on to someone else, with no one willing to take ownership of decisions.”

Empowering managers through coaching skills

Coaching can help change this kind of behaviour because it can help managers become more autonomous by fostering self-awareness, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

They become better at finding solutions within themselves and those trained in coaching skills, also are more effective listeners and questioners when it comes to managing others. Coaching ultimately helps promote a growth mindset and encourages a sense of ownership and accountability.

Communication that is deliberate and intentional

Managerial ventriloquism is often unconscious behaviour so it important to be more mindful of how we communicate and use language which is deliberate and intentional. Managers who have been coached or who have coaching skills tend to have higher self-awareness and are better attuned to who they are speaking to and what they are saying.

Increased self-awareness enables managers to be more meaningful in how they can convey requests or demands from above them. This can be done by balancing the request by adding their own view. So, for example, something like ‘head office needs this by…’ becomes ‘I know this is a priority for head office but appreciate we are under pressure with our existing workload…’.

This acknowledges that there is a higher need, but also recognises there are other factors being taken into consideration by the manager. This not only attaches importance to what the team might be working on, but it also helps to establish credibility for the manager as it demonstrates they are taking account of other pressures and considering everyone who is impacted as a result.

If managers can truly exercise their agency, then it can be pivotal in how their direct reports perceive them or how motivated they are by them. If they portray themselves as simply the mouthpiece of an organisation’s senior leadership, then the damage can be that team members will doubt the line manager’s authority which can weaken their position.