How many record company employees had Napster accounts in 1999 and clearly saw how the industry was shifting? Or how many Blockbuster employees were getting movies through Netflix in 2004?
When did GM employees start buying Hondas? Or Kodak employees start buying Canons? When did Barnes and Noble employees start shopping on Amazon?
Our employees see our industry and companies in a way that executives cannot. We shut out their feedback at our own risk.
Most companies know this. Most companies would say they value honest feedback. But most companies still seem hesitant to fully encourage this level of honesty at work. As Norman Vincent Peale famously said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”
Which path is your company pursuing?
Honesty is Clarity
“The object of the superior man is truth.” – Confucius
Abby Falik was struggling to gain funding for her startup, Global Citizen Year. Following round after round of rejection, she turned to a leadership coach for advice. He asked her to go out and collect as many “No’s” as she could over a two-week period.
She later credited these “no’s” as a gift. She realized that each rejection included an opportunity to learn and improve. And when she paid attention to the particular reasons behind each “No” she learned how to more effectively move forward.
As Reid Hoffman said in his 10 Commandments of Startup Success podcast with Tim Ferriss, “The most successful entrepreneurs listen closely to the No’s. They mine the rejections for clues.”
This same practice applies to employees.
We all want employees who are engaged with the company and aligned with the mission. So each day, the work they do, the culture we create, should be designed to reinforce that mission and increase engagement.
And when it doesn’t, we get another “No.” We’ve tried to sell the company to an employee and they’ve elected not to buy in. They’re giving us a rejection.
We can chalk it up to employee laziness and move along, head down, learning nothing. Or we can dig into the rejection. Mine it for clues. And figure out how to do better next time.
Hence the importance of encouraging honest feedback. Mining becomes a whole lot easier. We’re no longer digging through a pile of speculations and pretexts. We no longer need to guess at people’s motivations. They’re telling us. And we’re much better prepared to do something about it.
The Low Power Double Bind
“Power resides only where men believe it resides. No more and no less….A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” – George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
In his TED Talk, Adam Galinsky discusses the reasons that people don’t speak up at work. He attributes the issue to one of power. When people don’t feel empowered to speak honestly, they enter into a low power double bind. When we don’t speak up, we go unnoticed. When we do speak up, we get punished.
Once you start looking for this interaction, it’s easy to see. People who speak up against populist views are often those who have the power to do so without repercussion. Others don’t, so they rarely do.
It would be easy to blame employees for a lack of candor. It would be easy to say that people need to speak up if they want to be valued.
But when we see it as a symptom of power, it’s easy to see how the organization creates this dynamic.
If we want our employees to speak up with honest feedback, we need to help them feel empowered to do so. And this can’t just be a one-time action. It needs to be a continued point of focus.
Start Empowering Others
“You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe.” – Leymah Gbowee
So how do we encourage honesty on a daily basis? How do we empower people to speak up and provide a healthy level of candor?
Slapping up some posters highlighting “Honesty” and “Integrity” aren’t going to be enough. It needs to be a practice that’s ingrained in our culture. One where each day’s actions reinforce its importance.
And achieving this is the responsibility of everyone in an organization.
Give People Freedom.
Google famously gives it’s employees freedom to pursue passion projects with 20% of their time. Employees get complete freedom to use this time towards any project, with any manager they choose. Some of Google’s most notorious features, including Gmail and Google Maps, have been improved through this practice. With this practice, Google gives people the freedom to positively change the company on their own terms. Their people actively look for improvement opportunities because they know they’ll be able to act on them.
Make Everyone Responsible for Quality.
W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer and statistician, is known for developing quality manufacturing systems. His involvement in post-WWII Japan helped revitalize their economy to the point that in 1960, Japan was the second largest economy in the world. One aspect of his approach included the need to give complete ownership of a product’s quality to those involved in its creation. Instead of simply following a procedure, workers were encouraged to suggest changes, identify problems, and take pride in fixing what was broken.
Implementing this practice at work is more than just telling people to speak up. It’s showing them that while schedule and cost are important, quality will always be the top priority. While it’s easy to invite quality trade-offs amid budgetary and delivery pressures, honest cultures will appreciate those willing to stop the process and challenge this direction. By making everyone responsible for product quality, these companies reinforce this priority and empower everyone to keep the company on the path to achieve it.
Encourage (Authentic) Dissent.
Many companies make it a practice to assign a devil’s advocate to help foster debate and challenge different views. But research by Charlan Nemeth, a Psychology Professor at UC Berkeley, shows that this practice is unlikely to overcome confirmation bias. It leads to some superficial counterarguments, but people typically revert to their own views.
The key then is to find devil’s advocates that actually believe in the dissenting views. In these cases, the groups held more thoughtful discussions and reviewed more information in support of the dissenting view. Role-playing techniques rarely bring the level of forceful discussion that authentic disagreement does.
Prioritize the Mission.
People are more likely to speak out when they are acting on behalf of a purpose greater than themselves. When people believe in a company’s mission, they’re loyal to the organization’s purpose and are willing to challenge anything that jeopardizes it. Research of Silicon Valley start-ups showed that companies who hired for commitment to the mission, as opposed to technical skill, developed a stronger culture and were more successful. Companies that continually demonstrate their vision and live by their values help secure these traits within the company’s culture. And people will be committed to strengthening it.
Encourage New Hires to Question Things.
A culture needs to by dynamic, in a state of continued refinement and adaptation. When new hires come into a company, they provide a fresh perspective. They present the opportunity to look at the company through a fresh set of eyes. Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar, encourages new hires to challenge the existing culture by discussing past mistakes during onboarding sessions. By showing them that the company isn’t perfect, they feel empowered to look for and suggest improvements.
Be Transparent When It’s Difficult.
A friend recently found out that his company had declared bankruptcy. Not from the CEO or as part of a company-wide discussion. He read about it in The NY Times. Not until the next day did company management announce the move and their go-forward plans. You can imagine the trust that employee’s felt towards the company after that.
I’ve been involved in multiple reorganizations. For those that went well, the consistent trend was always transparency. When management can share the reasons behind their decisions, people are more likely to trust them. When management is willing to discuss future plans, people feel included in the process. And they’re more likely to respond with honest concerns. Companies cannot just be transparent when it’s convenient for them. Trust is contingent on sharing even when it’s difficult. In those situations, the question shouldn’t be whether to be transparent, but how.
One lesson of parenting is that I can give my kids directions until I’m blue in the face, but they’re still more likely to copy what they see than what they hear. Similarly, people don’t always believe what we say, but they will usually believe what we do. Leaders need to live their vision. To that end, leaders need to welcome the accountability that comes with an honest culture. When leaders can take full responsibility for their actions, they reinforce the message that they’re open to honest feedback. And when people see them holding themselves to a high standard, they’ll feel compelled to follow suit.
Stop Punishing Mistakes.
In his book, Principles: Life and Work, Ray Dalio discusses an oversight of one employee that cost his company several hundred thousand dollars. He could have fired the employee and set the tone that mistakes are not acceptable, but that would have encouraged other people to hide their own problems, leading to even bigger issues. So instead he implemented an issue log at his company Bridgewater. The rules were simple. If something went badly, people had to enter it into the log, characterize the severity, and identify who was responsible for it. The only way to get into trouble was to not enter something into the log. In this manner, people were quick to identify issues, which helped the company diagnose root causes and implement improvements.
Believe in Others
When we believe in others, they’ll believe in themselves. The best leaders make relationships a priority. They make themselves available to the people. They appreciate their contributions and understand their struggles. Most importantly, they listen. When we make these connections, we show people that we believe in them. And there’s no better way to empower people.
Encourage Honesty Today
“When the whole world is silent even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai
Reciprocity is deeply rooted in our society. Distrust and contempt are contagious. These behaviors dehumanize people and encourage them to respond in kind.
But we recognize, respect, and remember those who had the courage to break this cycle. And when we can start the cycle with encouraging honesty and openness, then reciprocity helps promote that culture as well.
How can you encourage honest feedback?
Look for an opportunity to start today. And encourage a culture that would prefer to be saved by criticism than ruined by praise. Because it’s all of our responsibility.