Let them eat cake, Did he just say, “Let them eat cake?”

Did he just say, “Let them eat cake?”

July 22nd, 2022 Posted by Leadership Coaching, Leadership Tools, Performance Coaching

According to Wikipedia, “Let them eat cake” is the traditional translation of the French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, said to have been spoken in the 17th or 18th century by “a great princess” upon being told that the peasants had no bread. The French phrase mentions brioche, a bread enriched with butter and eggs, considered a luxury food. The quote is taken to reflect either the princess’s frivolous disregard for the starving peasants or her poor understanding of their plight. While the phrase is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette, there are references to it prior to the French Revolution, meaning that it is impossible for the quote to have originated from Antoinette, and it is unlikely it was spoken by her. However, this post isn’t a history lesson about who said what. The “let them eat cake” phrase is synonymous with someone of privilege being completely out of touch with the needs of others, largely those who are less privileged.

This phrase came to my mind after a recent coffee chat I had with a leader from a large and well known organisation (that will remain anonymous). The CEO of this organisation wanted to get everyone back into the office (no, it wasn’t Elon) because “everyone wants to come back in, they’re much happier when they are in the office.” As you can imagine, this response drew a few disbelieving looks. It got me to wondering just how out of touch this CEO is from his staff and, if he is this out of touch, why? Why, for example, hasn’t he inquired about how people are feeling about the current uncertainty that we are all facing into? Or equally importantly, why hasn’t anyone told him how the troops are doing? Do they think he won’t care about their opinion? Is he open to hearing bad news? Does he welcome dissenting opinions that may lead to his subordinates challenging his views? If this is the case, it’s very likely that the environment in which this leadership team (or even organisation) find themselves in is psychologically unsafe.

If you’re uncomfortable speaking up or challenging more senior people in your organisation then it’s very likely you either:

  1. Lack confidence in your idea (which might be true, maybe you’re just learning the ropes),
  2. You believe that it’s not worth it (nothing ever changes anyway), or
  3. You believe that if you do challenge or speak ‘truth to power’ it would be a career limiting move.

If the reason is leaning more towards the 2) and 3) end of the spectrum then I’d question the long-term health of your team or organisation. According to the findings of Project Aristotle (a multi-year study carried out by Google to determine what makes a high-performing team) there were five factors that helped explain team performance. It didn’t come down to intelligence or a certain mix of personality types or backgrounds, it came down to the team having clear goals, dependable colleagues, personally meaningful work, the belief that the work has impact and, by an extreme margin, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute the talents they had to offer. To quote from this report, “psychological safety was by far the most important… it was the underpinning of the other four.”

Amy Edmondson, a lead researcher in the field of psychological safety, has found this to be true, not only for Google, but for any and all types of organisations and teams; from coal mines to airlines, and from technology companies to the Ubers of the world. In fact, from her research she has demonstrated that, all things being equal, if a timeline is drawn back from when measurable/observable issues arise in a team or organisation it comes down to a lack of trust and a fear that speaking up or putting myself out there is too emotionally expensive; therefore, I’ll stay quiet and hope things work out. It is for this reason, that when I work with leadership teams, I always start with building an environment of trust so the important conversations can be held without fear of retribution or alienation. It is only from this foundation that a team can become a high performing unit. It always starts with leadership… always!

So, what’s it like in your team? Do you find you can have open frank conversations about things you disagree with? Is it safe to challenge or give feedback even when you feel it won’t be welcome? What about you? Are you genuinely open to being challenged and hearing feedback on areas that are sensitive to you? As a leader, your response to dissent, mistakes made by your team, or how vulnerable you make yourself will determine the type of environment your team is working in.

If you’d like to know more about how to achieve more in life or business, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.

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