The CEO of a major manufacturing company asked for my help because his previously successful company was failing. Sales were down. Productivity was down. Profits were down. In short, the company was in deep trouble. I told my friend that I don’t have expertise in analyzing a manufacturing operation, but I do have some understanding of basic leadership principles. With that understanding, he asked me to come.
I asked his permission to interview the top staff in the company and any informal leaders that I might identify. I explained that these interviews must be confidential, and that I’d report the results to him without identifying the source.
I began by interviewing every manager in the company who reported directly to the CEO. During that process, the managers helped me identify a few important employees who were natural leaders or people of influence regardless of their formal position.
My interviews focused on leadership. Based on my initial assessment, my questions addressed the topics of:
1. Vision: Clarity of goals;
2. Control: Measuring goal achievement, delegating, executing and accountability;
3. Policy: The existence and communication of organizational policy;
4. Team building: The level of team spirit and cooperation, or lack thereof;
5. Staff development: Attention devoted to mentoring and training;
6. Communication: The frequency, methods and effectiveness of internal communication; and
7. Culture: The attention given to organizational culture.
The interviews were revealing. Patterns of common concern emerged. Most of them were fairly simple, and I was able to develop recommendations for resolve.
At the Root
Lack of team spirit wasn’t the issue. Employees felt like they belonged to a family. They seemed to look upon the CEO as sort of a grandfather. However, early on, I began to detect that they didn’t feel comfortable criticizing or giving bad news to their “lovable” grandfather. They didn’t want to hurt him or show disrespect. This phenomenon was exacerbated by the fact that the CEO typically reacted negatively to bad news. Consequently, he wasn’t getting all of the information he needed to deal with problems.
This situation isn’t uncommon. Viewing the CEO as a loved family member is probably rare. But the issue of hesitating to giving one’s boss bad news or negative feedback is pervasive. Some employees fear their boss will automatically blame them for the existence of a problem or lack of achievement. Others have a boss who interprets any bad news as a personal attack or an attack on policy decisions.
An ancient proverb states, “Better are wounds from a friend than kisses from an enemy.” This statement gives us two principles of healthy candid communication.
The first important principle is the issue of motive. Bad news or personal criticism can be good when coming from a friend. Some workers criticize a boss from a position of opposition rather than friendship. A friend gives critical or negative feedback with the intent to help or support.
One way to provide bad news or candid feedback is to do it in private rather than in a staff meeting. Some bosses are threatened by public criticism, but are actually appreciative when it’s given privately and confidentially. An employee who makes a critical statement of organization policy in an open staff meeting may have the motive of self aggrandizement. He may be trying to demonstrate his bravado rather than truly be helpful.
The second principle discourages flattery or venial praise. “Kisses from an enemy” implies sycophancy or insincere admiration. Fawning over the boss or confirming a decision that you know is bound to fail is cowardly flattery and not loyalty. Failing to warn the boss of impending danger, a faulty policy or a failing strategy can also fall within this all too common dysfunctional behavior.
Later, I went over some of my findings with the CEO. One of the issues was the lack of candid communication to him from his team. I suggested several ways to correct this issue. One suggestion: Hang a sign in his office with the message, “Bad news welcome here.” I cautioned him to back up the sign with a corporate atmosphere supporting that statement.
Several months later he called with the good news that his company was experiencing remarkable recovery. Providing and receiving candid feedback in the context of friendship and support can solve many leadership problems. —On Point.