On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare has King Henry V walking unrecognised among his troops where he hears some harsh words. When he provocatively says that he would be happy to die for the king because the cause is just, one soldier, Michael Williams, tells him "that's more than we know" and that, for those who die, "it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it".
Chief executives today, and monarchs for that matter, are too photographed and filmed to circulate incognito which means they don't often find out what their staff think of them or the business.
If business leaders ask people directly they are unlikely to get an honest answer. One former boss of a large UK company told me that employees' experience had taught them that they would get no reward for their candour.
So how can chief executives, or section heads, find out what people really think? That is assuming, of course, that they want to find out (many don't). One way is to have deputies who can go and ask for them.
When I ran a Financial Times department, I used to organise a Christmas lunch at a local restaurant. The company would provide a contribution and we would pay the rest. After a few years of everyone seeming to enjoy it I asked one of my deputies whether we should do the same again. Actually, he said, he had been canvassing opinion and people thought that, even with the company subsidy, it was too expensive. Everyone would prefer to go out for a drink.
If you don't ask someone to ask, you never know. Of course, that requires deputies who are trusted by their subordinates not to hold their views against them in the way that they suspect you might. If the deputies are senior and remote, employees may have the same qualms about speaking to them as they do to you. The deputies may also be measuring the advantages to themselves in letting you know the bad news.
A trusted employee outside the management hierarchy can be valuable, particularly if they have no further ambitions in the organisation and have been around long enough to know what is happening. It is worth getting to know a few in that position.
Many companies use employee surveys, often contracting third parties to run them and promising anonymity. I have my doubts about how effective these are. First, many employees don't trust the anonymity promise. Second, they may not see the point in answering. It is the same as talking to you directly. What's in it for them?
Third, anonymity can affect respondents in unexpected ways. A 2011 study of US college students surveyed them, either anonymously or by name, about whether they had behaved in a socially undesirable manner, such as visiting pornographic websites, or how much candy, provided in nearby bowls, they had eaten while answering questions.
The study did not detect significant variations in participants' truth-telling. Contrary to much earlier research, those who were not required to give their names were no more honest than those who were.
But the researchers did notice something else. Those doing the questionnaires anonymously paid less attention to the answers they gave. In long surveys, there was evidence that they started marking answers less conscientiously, which probably accords with how many of us behave when working our way through a set of questions. So employee surveys may provide bosses with some information about what people are concerned about, but it is best to treat them with caution.
There is a better way to find out what staff are thinking, which is to recognise a trade union. Union representatives sometimes exaggerate grievances and stir members up. But they can also play an important role in bringing complaints to managers' attention before they escalate. If they are external union officials, not employed by the company, they can speak up very easily. If they are internal union representatives who have agreed to take that position, they are probably the kind of people who speak up anyway.
Many top executives dislike unions, just as many dislike being told hard truths. But knowing what staff are worrying about is better than not knowing.
Written by: Michael Skapinker
© Financial Times