If you ask the senior leaders of any organization how things are going in their organization, they would probably give you an upbeat, positive, optimistic description. If you then ask the shop-floor employees, the same question you would probably hear a different story.
From many years of experience, I can attest that there is often a dissonance between how senior leaders view their organizational and business reality and how employees do. While senior leaders often paint a rosier picture and claim that things are going well, even if there are issues, their people often highlight all the issues and describe things as not going that well.
In addition, employees often express frustrations about their senior leaders. They often say things like:
“We can’t be honest with our managers about the burning issues because they only want to hear good news. As a result, they don’t understand the full extent of the problem and we can’t address and change things…”
If you want to fix or change things or take any aspect of your business to a higher level, you have to start with honesty. You have to make sure employees and managers at all levels feel comfortable and safe to bring up the issues and problems, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable they may be.
Leaders who can stand in front of their superiors, peers, and people and acknowledge: “This isn’t working!” without discounting or sugar-coating the issues have a much greater chance to turn things around and generate breakthroughs.
Unfortunately, so many leaders seem insecure in this area. They seem to be so concerned about how exposing issues would reflect on their personal brand, that their self-preservation concerns hinder their ability to acknowledge and address the issues heads on.
So many leaders come across as politically correct and covering their behinds when talking about the issues. They can’t seem to be able to say: “This is not working. We need to fix it!” Instead, they say things like: “Things are going well, but we have an opportunity to improve…”
Their vague and watered-down pronouncement prevents them from fully owning and addressing their issues. It also weakens their ability to generate urgency to fix what isn’t working. In addition, their lack of blunt honesty hurts their credibility with their people, who usually know exactly how severe the issues are.
Just reflect on any corporate scandal or breakdown that has been in the news in the last few years and you’ll see a similar pattern – customers experience a big issue – be it environmental, safety or quality issues.
Once the issues are publicly exposed – often in the media, the PR department goes full-throttle into damage control. The CEO makes a public apology and the clean-up begins, including things like a stop in manufacturing and/or a product recall.
However, the question that never gets addressed is – Why did the breakdown happen in the first place?
From many years of working with organizations, I can tell you with confidence that employees and supervisors on the shop floor always know about quality and safety problems long before top managers become aware of them.
In a company where leaders are unafraid to hear the truth, employees tend to follow suit and be courageous and vocal too. This environment is much more conducive for everyone at all levels making it their daily business to make sure things are working the way they need to. In those organizations, important information, no matter how sensitive, controversial or troubling, percolates up to the right places very fast.
However, in organizations where leaders are reluctant to hear the truth, people tend to hide and cover their behind. Finger-pointing blossoms, people do as they are told but they are unwilling to be the bearers of bad news. When you don’t have honesty, leaders remain oblivious and blind to the issues and as a result, they don’t own, confront and address them effectively.
You need courage to look in the mirror, face reality and own the uncomfortable and challenging situations. When you do it, you move from being smaller than your problems to being bigger than them. When this shift happens, you always feel more empowered and eager to take action and turn things around.
Honesty is the mandatory first step for taking the game to the next level in any area. And, as the saying goes, “The truth shall set you free.” Even if at first it will “piss you off.”