How often do you find yourself voicing someone else’s ideas, thoughts, or demands at work? Whether you are conveying your CEO’s wishes to a colleague or explaining to your team that “sales needs an update,” speaking for others — what researchers call managerial ventriloquism — is a common practice in organizations. It 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 organizations’ reputation and profits.
The practice of invoking distant interests by making statements like “The CEO needs this by the close of play” or “The board needs answers immediately” is commonplace and natural. But when managers rely on this approach to excess, it is usually an indicator of one of two issues in the organization: Either managers possess too little autonomy and are compelled to speak the words of others (typically, the organization’s leaders), or, as is the case in most organizations, the habit of ventriloquism has become so ingrained that managers act as others’ mouthpieces without giving the practice much thought. So by routinely saying “The CEO needs …,” for instance, a manager can create the perception, both in their own mind and among colleagues, that they lack authority. 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.
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
The good news is that paying attention to these behaviors and modifying them can have big payoffs. Identifying when and why managers unnecessarily take on the messenger role helps them realize that they often have more autonomy than they and their colleagues assumed. Minor adjustments in word choice allow managers to demonstrate that they have autonomy — and deserve more of it. Further, moderating how often they speak for others and paying attention to what they say in this role boosts managers’ credibility and effectiveness and fosters a healthy corporate culture where responsibility is clearly assigned and claimed.
These observations are based on our research, which includes four ethnographic studies in Financial Times Global 500 businesses and public-sector organizations.