The Power of Open Communication

When a leader opens an authentic and inclusive conversation with team members, he or she signals that management trusts in its employees and values their input.  At the same time, for many leaders this conversation will present uncomfortable challenges.  Negative feedback can be harsh and even personal.  This type of open communication requires courage and patience.  When IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano opened an online conversation with employees, the initial postings included a lot of cynicism and strong critiques of the organization.  Management wanted to pull the plug in the first days.  (Hemp, et. al. p. 35-36).  As the days wore on, however, people began to make more constructive comments, and those who just wanted to vent were answered by other IBMers who stood up for the company.  In the end, IBM was able to develop a new set of corporate values that were defined by the employees themselves. (p. 47).

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The top-down, “command-and-control” model of communication that was typical for most corporations in the previous century is not as effective as a more casual, bottom-up model. (Groysberg et. al. p. 77-78)  In the article “Leadership Is a Conversation,” the authors outline 4 ways to create an effective organizational conversation:

  • Intimacy: Management should engage team members in authentic, open conversation from all levels.  It is also important to establish trust by being open.  (Some companies even make sensitive financial information open to employees to help establish this trust.)  Leaders should practice the art of listening and creating group discussions, and they must learn to accept negative feedback as being valid and worth consideration.  (p. 78-84)
  • Interactivity: In order for an organizational conversation to become the norm, leaders will need to practice making communication non-directive.  Only by inviting feedback and responding to the concerns and suggestions of team members can the conversation become a significant component of the company’s culture.  Where interactivity is limited due to distance, a video teleconference may be a good solution. (p. 80-81)
  • Inclusion: Communication should become “an equal opportunity endeavor.”  Employees should be able to create topics on their own, and they should be encouraged to create content for new conversations.  This element in the organizational conversation makes it possible for team members to become brand ambassadors, but management is likely to lose some control of the message.  This is another act of trust on the part of the leaders. (p. 81-82)
  • Intentionality: The leader provides some guidelines for the conversation.  There should be some guiding purpose for the communication, and it is up to the leader to help define this purpose on a regular basis. (82-83)

Call to Action: Please email comments or questions regarding your experiences with communication in the workplace.  I would especially be interested in any specific suggestions you might be able to offer.

Works Referenced: 

Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Leadership Is a Conversation. Harvard Business Review, 77-84.

Hemp, P., & Stewart, T. A. (2004). Leading Change When Business Is Good. In HBR’S 10 Must Reads: On Change Management (pp. 35-57). Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.


Challenging Complaining: Maintaining a Culture of Open Communication

One unique challenge that leaders face in the workplace is how best to respond to team members who complain about others behind their backs.  The practice is common enough that it might seem impractical to make an issue over every snide, off-hand comment.  After all, it could be argued that some such comments are made in an effort to make light of workplace situation or behavior, and that no real harm is usually meant.  What is more, should we not encourage employee to express his or her personal feelings?  Is it not a breach of trust to take the employee to task over a brief lapse in professionalism and maturity?  In a previous post, I wrote about the need to create a company’s culture.  Here, I will look at one specific component of culture that must be addressed openly: an intolerance for the act of speaking poorly of others behind their backs.

office gossip

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Leading by example means looking the other way is not an option.  Culture is defined not by a mission statement or through training modules, but through the behavior of management.  When a leader or manager listens to another team member who is making insulting remarks or complaints about a colleague without any objection, he or she is colluding with the perpetrator (Chaleff, 2009, p. 220-221).  A signal is being relayed that this behavior is acceptable, and even appreciated.  It follows that the company’s culture will eventually include the practice of gossiping about others, which will ultimately lead to higher levels of stress and in-fighting.

How do we effectively curtail gossip or slander in the workplace?  The answer will vary based on the workplace environment and the nature of what was being said.  Applying the same expectancy of professional behavior to both a heavy laborer and an administrative assistant is not reasonable.  Also, the nature of the comment should be considered.  If the complaint is a critique of the other individual’s workplace behavior, or it is a character assassination, then it should always be addressed.  There are two options:

  • Let the speaker know that this behavior is inappropriate.  This approach is perhaps the best option when the comment is simply an immature criticism of the other colleague.  It is important for the response to be made at the time the comment is made, even if the speaker is embarrassed in front of others.  A simple, short statement, however, should suffice.  If the individual is a repeat offender, however, a written correction may be required.
  • Call in the speaker and the colleague who was the subject of the comment for a meeting.  This is a response that is recommended in Ira Chaleff‘s book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders (2009, p. 220-221).  This approach is perhaps the best option when the comment is a direct attack on the other colleague’s work abilities or character.  While it is undoubtedly likely to generate an uncomfortable conversation, it sends two important signals: negative comments made about others in secret are not tolerated; and, questions and concerns about a colleagues competence are taken seriously.

 Call to Action: Please email me any personal experiences you have had with colleagues complaining about others behind their backs, including how management effectively (or ineffectively) responded to such behavior.

Work Referenced: 

Chaleff, I. (2009). The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Transforming Your Organization Into an Employer of Choice

The common objective of successfully addressing a high turnover rate is typically met with a two-pronged approach.  Both of these are short-term strategies that establish tangible changes to the human resource management system.  The first component of the strategy is to engage in more active and aggressive recruiting activity.  The second component is to improve pay and benefits.  While it is important to replace exiting talent, and it may be necessary to reevaluate the compensation and benefits packages offered, these activities do nothing to benefit the company in the long-term.  According to Leigh Branham, in his book, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, a retention strategy must be broader and more oriented towards long-term effectiveness.

great company

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A comprehensive retention strategy must address short-term and long-term employee needs, which include both tangible and intangible components (p. 196-197): 

  • Short-term intangible: Pay, health insurance, and quarterly or yearly incentives fit into this category.  This is the category that is most attractive to management, as it seems to offer a quick fix and requires minimal effort.
  • Long-term intangible: Stock options, profit sharing, and retirement plans fit into this category.  Adjusting long-term benefits may be attractive, especially in a company that has a large, highly compensated professional component.  Again, the adjustments made are relatively simple, and they do not require a systemic change.
  • Short-term intangible: Work-life balance, recruiting practices, and mentoring new hires fit into this category.  This component of a retention strategy requires more work from various members of the organization.  Human resources has to accommodate new hiring procedures, management and human resources will need to look at ways to improve work-life balance, and managers will be tasked with a greater responsibility for mentoring and coaching.
  • Long-term intangible: work environment and culture, management behavior, and trust in management fit into this category.  This final component is the most demanding, and it requires consistent effort.  In a previous post, I argued that creating culture is necessary for any organization to have long-term success.  This requires genuine leadership.  Addressing management behavior is an ongoing process that involves mentoring, and eliciting employee feedback.  Finally, establishing trust is a critical component to any organization’s success.  The topic of trust is also covered in a previous post.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to turnover reduction.  The author provides examples of several companies that have successfully reduced turnover through strategies that were uniquely tailored to their needs.  While I will not provide anecdotal examples here, it will suffice to say that there is no universal approach.  Each company had to evaluate that challenges in retention that it faced, and had to provide solutions that were designed specifically for the groups that had higher than acceptable turnover rates.  What these companies did share in common included the following actions (p. 205):

  • Resolved to take action as soon as a turnover problem was detected.
  • Recognized which employees were vital to the success of the company and made every effort to meet their needs.
  • Implemented changes quickly to meet the needs of key employees. 
  • Tracked results of their efforts to reduce turnover and evaluated effectiveness of changes.

An organization should have a scorecard to measure its progress towards becoming an employer of choice.  A scorecard needs to measure 4 distinct variables (p. 208-210):

  1. Attraction: How many applications are received for each job posted, what percentage of the applications are high quality, and the ratio of acceptance to offers are a few of the metrics that could be included in this evaluation. 
  2. Selection: First-year performance, turnover rate, absenteeism, and manager evaluations can be incorporated to help gauge how well new hires were selected.
  3. Engagement: Employee surveys and engagement scores for the first year, percentage who complete orientation process, and percentage that received mentoring or coaching are possible factors to include in this measurement.
  4. Sustained Engagement: Voluntary turnover rates, absenteeism rates, and training hours per employee are some variables that can be used in measuring sustained engagement.

Call to Action: Please email me any comments, questions, or suggestions you might have regarding this topic.  I would be especially interested to hear from people who have experience with company changes that were designed to reduce turnover.

Work Referenced:

Branham, Leigh (2005). The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late. New York: AMACOM.


Encouraging Employee Workplace Investment

In a previous post I addressed the idea that employees should be seen as investors, as they choose their levels of investment in their workplaces.  The human capital investment includes their abilities, behavior, effort, and time.  This idea comes from the book, Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It, written by Thomas O. Davenport.  In the following post we will look at various strategies that managers can use to increase employee investment.  Increasing investment will help both in improving productivity and in reducing withdrawal.

Employee Motivation

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Developing employee competence increases job satisfaction and performance.  When employees feel that professional development is valued and encouraged, they are much more likely to be dedicated, hard-working team members.  Achievement at work is one of Mclelland’s three needs that motivate employees, and building up competence is a great way to satisfy this need.  Developing competence could include enabling an employee to acquire a professional certification, sponsoring the employee to attend conferences, or providing an employee with the opportunity to learn a new skill.  Davenport does point out, however, that competence is about learning and teaching, and that it is essential that new hires be selected for their ability to mentor and their own interest in learning (p. 126).  In addition, the author stresses the need for managers to signal that mentoring and learning are important components of the company’s culture (p. 127).

Giving autonomy to your team members is an easy way to improve job commitment.  Nobody likes to be controlled, monitored, or criticized while performing his or her job tasks.  In eliminating micromanagement, both managers and employees benefit from a reduction in feelings of burnout (p. 130).  It is not difficult to perceive the wisdom in this management approach from both sides of the fence.  Davenport also posits the idea that providing greater autonomy makes it more likely that employees will cooperate with management (129).  Where employees feel empowered to self-manage their own activities, there is less opportunity for adversarial relationships to grow between managers and their employees.

There are three keys to establishing more autonomy (p. 131):

  • Make sure that people understand clearly what needs to be done.
  • Ensure that employees know how the organizational systems function, and that they understand how their role fits in the overall company strategy.
  • Give team members what they need to perform their tasks effectively (competence and equipment).

Ensure fairness in treatment, and account for individual equity.  Distributive and procedural justice are necessary for employee investment to take place.  Employees must feel secure that there will be a reasonable return on their investment.  For this reason, rewards should always be easy to understand.  The guidelines for being fair with employees are as follows (originally, from G. S. Leventhal, p. 146):

  1. Be consistent. 
  2. Avoid favoritism or biases.
  3. Make sure information is accurate and objective.
  4. Invite appeals and complaints, and listen to these with an open mind.
  5. Keep the interests of all in mind.
  6. Use rewards when behavior embodies values of company.

Call to Action: Please email me any ideas or comments you might have regarding this post.

Work Referenced:

Davenport, Thomas O. (1999). Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Setting the Stage for Employee Commitment

In a previous post I presented the idea that management should see employees as human capital asset investors, as opposed to assets.  The reason for this distinction is simply that each employee is free to invest in the company through his or her time, effort, and skills and abilities as he or she sees fit.  Just because a highly talented individual is part of our organization does not necessarily mean that this employee is consistently providing great value.  If the team member does not perceive working at the particular company to be a good investment of his or her time or talents, then performance will suffer, and withdrawal is to be expected.  One great way to make employee investment more likely to happen is to include the individual in the core strategy of the company, making sure that all team members understands how their contributions are necessary for realizing your strategy.

Employee CommitmentPhoto Credit

Encouraging human capital investment starts with three basic components, as described by Thomas Davenport (p. 95-96):

  • Strategy Alignment: Make sure that the individual efforts are directed towards the overall company strategy.  When employees feel that their efforts are productive and contribute to the company’s success, they are motivated to invest their time and expertise.
  • Understanding: Employees need to understand clearly what is expected of them and why their tasks matter to the organization.
  • Mutual Acceptance: Managers must trust employees to fulfill their half of the contract, and they must follow through on their contractual obligations (written and implied).

Workers should be empowered to assist in making the organization worthy of their investment.  To find out what is wrong within an organizational system, the best place to start is with the employees.  Davenport puts forth the idea that workers should have some influence over the evaluation process and guidelines, and should have the opportunity to eliminate tasks that are seen as being without value (p. 100-101).  When employees are able to openly critique employee review guidelines, evaluation inconsistencies and flawed metrics are more likely to be removed.  Also, when employees are able to get rid of those annoying tasks that are of little value to the company, it becomes much easier for a flow experience to occur.

Transparency matters.  It is not possible to address any of the three plans of action mentioned above in bullets without transparency.  The organization must be an open book to the employee (p. 101).  Each team member should understand how the company operates, what strategies it has going forward, why system changes have taken place, and where they fit in the grand plan.  It is a grave mistake to keep employees in the dark, especially if a leader wants to see a higher level of investment on the part of employees.  Mr. Davenport makes a great point regarding sharing financial information with team members when he argues that this act signals that the employees have a responsibility for the organization’s success (p. 103).  In the same way that an investor would not buy stock in a company that refused to share financial information, so too is talent likely to hold back in investing his or her human capital where transparency is compromised.

Call to Action: Please email me any comments or suggestions you have regarding improving the work environment to encourage team members to invest their time, effort, and skill.

Work Referenced:

Davenport, Thomas O. (1999). Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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