One of the things I learned about myself after I started JazzHR in 2009 was that to some people I can be quite intimidating. Every leader underestimates how intimidating they are -- every single one -- but in my case I was incredibly blind. I came from the design industry where blunt talk was expected because it was the only way to ensure the work was good. But even as an individual contributor way back then, I was intimidating.
It's funny to have realized this so late in life when you consider my physical attributes and grating personality. First, I'm physically imposing at 6 feet, 4 inches tall. Next, I reflexively use a loud voice when I communicate, and can be dominating in conversation (something I wish I could change). I am also very opinionated and enjoy debate, and I'm willing to slog it out until I am convinced.
I sound awesome, right? Don't answer that.
But above all, people who know me will say I'm extremely blunt and have an entrepreneurial temperament. As "the boss," I quickly learned that while these attributes can benefit both a personal career and entrepreneurial journey, they can hurt one's ability to lead people effectively because everyone is somewhat afraid of you, and thus they do not instinctively speak their mind.
Well I'm 39, so these personality traits are probably not going to change without a lot of work, over time. But time goes fast in a startup, and every moment is critical. When employees disagree with you, but are afraid to tell you, they suffer and the business suffers. So when I was still leading JazzHR, and I started to get the sense that the team wasn't always being transparent with me, I established a new core value: "Culture of candor". We would embrace open dialogue without any fear of repercussion.
This core value worked, but only for a while. The team was small, and we were rather close. During a staff meeting, I was happy to see folks raise their hand and preamble their question with, "Culture of candor..." before laying into me about something that was broken in the business. I thought the core value was opening the door, but in reality, we had spent enough time together to the point they knew me and knew they could speak their mind. But as the company grew, I had less face time with individual employees, and the awkward silences at the end of meetings came back.
"Any questions?" *Crickets*
I don't trust crickets. There is no way a group of 50+ people are all fully-informed and trusting that all areas of the business are in top shape. You know employees go on lunch break and discuss work problems. You know your company email and chat is probably full of written frustration about sub-optimal business processes. But when you're the founder, CEO and seventy six-inches tall, no one is going to raise their hand and bluntly ask, "Why are we not growing faster?"
But I figured out a technique to get employees to speak up more by helping them see the self-imposed punishment of dealing with problems they never expressed. To fix how we worked, the technique involved having the employee imagine they were not at work, and thus more candid with the people around them.
"You know that issue in the business that you vent about to friends at a bar, or a co-worker at lunch, or even someone at home? What about that issue that runs through your mind before bed and in the shower the next day? Yeah, that issue. Well that issue most likely only gets resolved if you mention it here. If you don't mention it, we can't fix it together, especially if some of us don't even know about it. So speak up -- this is a safe place to be candid."
That one statement encouraged even the shyest employees to speak up. They realized business problems that affect them outside of work can only get fixed when they are shared in the open at work, and all that time spent stressing at lunch, at a bar or at home is a self-imposed, avoidable intrusion of work problems into their personal life. And when the problem is brought to light, especially in a large public forum such as a staff meeting, management is now on notice to fix things. And good managers are thankful (never vengeful) that employees don't assume they can see everything right and wrong about the business.
There's also a side benefit when an employee is the one who speaks up. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I know the vocal employee often gets the promotion because they are at minimum a problem identifier, which means they are also likely a problem solver when empowered.
In time, I didn't even need to recite the entire statement. I just had to simply say, "Let's not discuss issues at the bar -- let's speak up now." Everyone knew what that meant, and while more people would raise their hands, leading to longer meetings, eventually all the big questions were exposed, and our meeting times went back to normal. The company was still far from perfect, but it was also far more self-aware than it had ever been in the past.
If employees don't expose the business problems that need addressed, how will you ever fix them? Start convincing employees that by openly discussing business problems, they are actually solving personal problems that just happen to be work related.