When he was a consultant Jim Whitehurst, CEO Red Hat, discovered something amazing,
“One of the most surprising aspects of that work was that people would open up to me, an outsider, about all the elephants in the room — but they were too polite or embarrassed to call out the obvious issues or blame their peers inside their own organizations. My fellow consultants and I would sometimes joke that just about every individual inside a company could immediately tell you what was going wrong and what needed fixing. But whenever everybody convened for a meeting to point out those very issues, you wouldn’t hear a peep about anything that could be perceived as negative. To our amazement, they were more open to hearing feedback from us, the outsiders, than from their own colleagues.”
Though this phenomena is good for consultants, shouldn’t companies be having candid conversations on their own? Wouldn’t the ability to share open and honest feedback throughout the organization improve their chances of addressing their issues, and more quickly?
The gap for most companies is that they have not made the practices of open dialogue and providing constant feedback as part of the company’s DNA. As Jim experienced when he began at Red Hat, “Because Red Hat sprang from the world of open source software — a community whose members pride themselves on delivering open and honest feedback — having candid, and what others might call difficult, conversations is the norm. We debate, we argue, and we complain. We let the sparks fly. The benefits of operating this way are immense because we are able to tackle the elephant in the room head on, but this kind of culture is hard to build and maintain, especially as companies grow.”
Jim likens the practice of sharing regular feedback across the company to a flywheel, “It’s hard at first to get it moving. You’ll need to do some substantial pushing and monitoring to get the wheel spinning. But before you know it, you’ll find that the wheel begins to turn all on its own using its own momentum.”
As a long term consultant myself I often needed to get a really stiff flywheel started and discovered a tool, in addition to Jim’s advice, that has really helped to build and keep that momentum going. Here are 4 concurrent steps to get your feedback loop spinning.
The first three steps are from Jim’s advice. As he says, “this is the foundational work that gets everyone pushing in the same direction that creates a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable having difficult conversations.” Step four is the pivotal step that I added since creating a foundation of mutual trust and respect makes the first three steps easier to start and keep going. Most important, as Jim reminds us, “As a leader, you must role model these behaviors, and encourage them at every level of your organization”
- Show appreciation. A great way to start a feedback loop, therefore, is to actually begin by recognizing the good work someone has done. One key to creating a self-sustaining feedback loop is that you need to spend much more time recognizing and appreciating someone’s efforts than you do criticizing them. That’s how you can begin to establish trusting relationships that are strong enough to withstand constructive criticism that might come along.
- Open up. We all have the tendency, when we think we’re under attack, to circle the wagons and protect our department and ourselves. But if you want to build a feedback loop in your business, you, especially as a leader, need to lead by example and open yourself up to hear what people are saying. If someone in another department is convinced you’re not listening to them, what makes you think they’ll listen to anything you have to say to them? Yes, opening yourself up makes you vulnerable. But that’s also why we all need to be able to process constructive criticism without taking it personally. If you can do that, you can create the kind of open and honest culture that is capable of tackling the thorniest of issues together.
- Be inclusive early and often. A big part of building an effective feedback loop is to get people from all over the organization involved as soon as possible in your decision-making, whether you work in finance, IT, or human resources — and often. It’s far easier and effective to gather feedback from other departments on smaller incremental issues than waiting until you’re farther along where the stakes and risks have increased. If you do get some constructive criticism early on, you can more easily change course while also increasing trust and buy-in from the rest of the company.
- Be intentional about talking about how we are similar, different and can support each other: One of the tools we use at Premierehire, and with our clients, is designed to help get the flywheel spinning right from day one. In addition to the above steps, the Stop Guessing tool builds improved communication and understanding between individuals and among team members in simple, short one on one or team meetings. “It really is brilliant and fun. Stop Guessing quickly brought our team together and our insights about each other created a synergy and bond that really makes us so much more effective and work more enjoyable too.” As the President of a Carlsbad company shared, “I loved having the Stop Guessing insights to discuss with my new VP. It broke down barriers fast, created trust and understanding, and enabled us to just steam roll ahead with the work.”
Follow these steps, get the flywheel moving and lead the way to encouraging difficult conversations inside your organization. Otherwise, as Jim surmises, “those elephants in the office are bound to trip you up sooner or later.”
Leanne Abraham is President and Snr. Advisor for Premierehire, an Executive Search and Staffing company that helps companies build strong teams and culture through effective recruiting, onboarding and retention. Premierehire’s SmartStart program, which includes Stop Guessing, helps new hires, managers and leaders be intentional about creating good relationships and effective workplace dynamics.