“The skill of neutrality is a powerful strength if you want to increase your influence” (JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf)

I sometimes hear the following comments from employees in different organisations: “I can’t speak to my boss as he is biased; managers here don’t really listen to ideas; the concept of ‘fairness’ doesn’t exist in my organisation; my manager never takes my side; etc.” It would seem that employee ideas, concerns and feelings require fair attention from those in leadership – an employee need that should be met. Employees are crying out for managers to be understanding, neutral and fair in open dialogue and discussions that relate to sensitive issues. They want to be objectively ‘heard’ and respected for their views. They feel that they have an important part to play in the future of the organisation and want to make a valuable contribution. Is manager neutrality, however, the ‘solution’ that employees really need?

The word “neutrality” has both positive and negative connotations, hence only my partial agreement with JoAnn’s comment above. Positively, neutrality could mean a lack of bias or prejudice, objectivity and impartiality – the ability to see all sides of the argument or all the nuances of the opinions being expressed. This ability could translate into fairness, upholding respect amongst members of a team and inclusion – certainly all needed to maintain a positive organisational culture. Negatively, neutrality could mean the absence of decided views, expression and strong feeling or not supporting or helping either side in a conflict or disagreement, the same not necessarily assisting in developing the organisational culture positively. For the manager, therefore, in what circumstances should neutrality exist and in what contexts is neutrality unacceptable?

Neutrality as a positive skill:

  1. No favouritism – the ability to treat all employees with respect, dignity, fairness and as valued members of the organisation. This means that achievement, discretionary effort and improvements are acknowledged, but equally, poor performance and non-alignment with the values are addressed.
  2. Impartiality on non-core issues – the ability to take a neutral stance on decisions that do not impact the future of the business (e.g.: the allocation of parking bays to managers and staff).
  3. Objectivity – during brainstorming, the understanding that most ideas have some merit and the ability to point out possibility, thus encouraging participation and solidifying inclusion.

Neutrality as a negative disposition:

  1. The absence of views or beliefs – an undecided manager breeds uncertainty, anxiety and a lack of cohesion. Employees become directionless and crave guidance.
  2. A lack of backbone – indifference to the organisational values and not addressing behaviour non-alignment. Doing and reinforcing what is right, however, sets the tone for the culture.
  3. Not standing up for the organisation/team – not supporting the company in a conflict situation or disagreement. Organisational vision, mission, values and strategic direction should drive commitment and faithfulness.
  4. A lack of passion – little positive input or expressions of hope that could potentially be driving focus and energy. All employees need to be stretched to new heights and be encouraged frequently.

Manager neutrality is an oxymoron in certain circumstances, especially those that relate to organisational values, expected manager and employee behaviours and company objectives. Managers can’t be neutral on issues pertaining to right or wrong – organisational integrity is at stake.

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