In an insightful article in the January-February 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review titled, “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?”(1) authors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burrus discuss the importance of leaders maintaining a culture of honesty so they can get the feedback they need to know what’s going on in their organizations. They point out that one key action leaders can take is to reach out to employees on a regular basis.
I always thought I did that by telling the people who work in my firm that I have an open door policy and that they can walk in and tell me anything they want. Detert and Burrus point out that an open door policy insures that you only hear from those brave enough or motivated enough to go through that door. By reaching out, you raise the odds you get vital information you would have never gotten if you had just waited for employees to come to you. They describe an instance where a VP of manufacturing in a health products company told them that during a plant visit, he’d veered from the scheduled “dog and pony show” to walk the floor by himself and talk with frontline employees. One of them mentioned a flaw in the design of some bubble wrap, which the VP jotted down and was able to quickly address. That bit of honesty saved the company about a million dollars.
What can you do to encourage honesty?
I recommend that you make it a practice to hold “honesty forums” where you ask folks to contribute ideas, say what’s on their minds and get recognized for doing so. And of course, you would never punish someone for practicing honesty, even if he tells you something you don’t want to hear. You can also chat with people in the workplace as you walk around, which you should do on a regular basis. It’s called MBWA (Management By Walking About.
Now if you are going to do this kind of reaching out (and I do), I recommend that you do so in a way that demonstrates you are truly interested in what each employee has to say because if he or she thinks you are just going through the motions and are not sincere, they will clam up and tell you very little – and it will breed a kind of cynicism about your sincerity as a leader that is definitely not healthy for the organization.
Unfortunately, it can be easy to send those kinds of negative messages, even if you don’t intend to. Psychologist and communications expert Evelyn Sieburg(2) sites several behaviors that we can inadvertently display during a conversation that will telegraph to the listener that his or her views are not welcome. She calls them disconfirming messages.
• Non-responsiveness – where you don’t respond with an answer or reaction to what the person is saying.
• Signs of disinterest – like yawning, lack of eye or glancing at you watch.
• Interruptions – where you cut the person off with what you want to say.
• Allowing interruption – like taking a phone call during the conversation.
• Patronization – where you treat the person like a child.
• Giving ambiguous or disconnected answers – that don’t address the person’s issues – politicians are good at this one.
• One-upmanship – where you respond with an answer intended to out do what the speaker has said.
Of course none of us would ever engage in these honesty killing behaviors intentionally, right?
Wrong. Even with the best of intensions, I know, however, that I catch myself falling into some of them inadvertently when I’m tired, distracted, or don’t really want to hear what the person has to say – and I do so at my own peril. I consider the people who work for me to be the eyes, ears and creative engines that drive my business. By discouraging their bringing me valuable information, I put my whole business at risk. How about for you?
1 James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burrus, “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?”, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2016,
2 Evelyn Sieburg, “Interpersonal Confirmation: A Paradigm for Conceptualization and Measurement,” San Diego, United States International University (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 098 634), 1975., https://archive.org/stream/ERIC_ED098634/ERIC_ED098634_djvu.txt