When I coach organizations I typically start by learning about the company; about its business, culture and team dynamic. I speak with people and get their insight and feelings about what’s working and what isn’t working.
Very frequently there is a dissonance between how senior managers view things and how their junior managers and employees do. While senior managers often paint a more rosy picture and claim that things are really going well, their people often highlight all the issues and describe things as not going that well.
In addition, employees often express frustrations about their managers. 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 promote 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 them, that their feelings hinder their ability to actually address the issues heads on.
When addressing issues so many leaders come across as diplomatic and politically correct. 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. In addition, their lack of blunt honesty only hurts their credibility with their people, who usually know exactly how severe the issues are.
History is filled with examples of what I am writing about. 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 exposed in the media, the PR department goes full throttle into damage control, the CEO makes a public apology and the clean-up begins, perhaps a stop in manufacturing and/or a recall of products.
However, the question that never gets addressed publically is – what was the root cause of the problem 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 pretty much 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 this example, becoming vocal and courageous themselves. Everyone at all levels makes it their daily business to make sure that things are working the way the need to. In those organizations, important information, no matter how sensitive or controversial, 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 people remain oblivious and blind to the issues and as a result, they don’t own, confront and address them effectively.
Sometimes you need the courage to face reality. But, looking in the mirror and owning the situation, especially if it is uncomfortable or challenging, is a game changer. It moves you from being smaller than your problems to being bigger than them. When this shift happens, you always feel more empowered, eager and excited 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 first it will “piss you off!”