When employees complain, do you take time to consider your options? Or do you act immediately?

Your answer probably depends on the employee and the complaint. But if you want to build a culture of trust, there is much to be said for responding immediately when your employees are brave enough to voice why they're unhappy. 

That's one of the key takeaways you'll come away with if you study the cultural transformation at Barry-Wehmiller, a $2 billion capital equipment and engineering consulting company based in St. Louis. The company's culture, praised by purpose-based leadership gurus Srikumar Rao and Simon Sinek, is the subject of a new book by CEO Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia, professor at Babson College and co-author of Conscious Capitalism (along with Whole Foods Market co-founder John Mackey). 

In the book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, due out on October 6, Chapman shares how Barry-Wehmiller (B-W) built its acclaimed employees-first culture of trust, largely by responding to employee frustrations. Here are seven steps to the process, which I've gleaned from the book and an interview with the authors. 

1. Ask questions that lead to unrehearsed, emotional truths. 

In 2002, veteran machine tester Ron Campbell--who'd been with B-W for 27 years--challenged Chapman on the merits of B-W's "Guiding Principles of Leadership" document.

The document emphasizes how trust is the basis of B-W's work environment. So why, Campbell wondered, did he have to punch a time clock, get supervisors to approve time off for doctor's visits, and wait for bell breaks to get coffee or use the bathroom? How did any of that constitute trust? 

What made the situation more galling for Campbell was that he'd just returned from a three-month assignment in Puerto Rico, where he had immense autonomy. Coming back to the plant made him feel like "all my freedom slipped away," he told Chapman. 

Prior to the confession, Chapman assured Campbell his honesty would not jeopardize his job. The most important part of eliciting confessions like Campbell's was simply asking: "How does this make you feel?" And listening when Campbell told him.

2. Act quickly, when the truth strikes.

The day after Campbell's confession, Chapman instructed a manager to remove time clocks and break bells. 

It's not the only time Chapman acted quickly to resolve employee frustrations. In March 1997, when B-W was a $110 million company, Chapman visited Hayssen, a $55 million packaging company in South Carolina that B-W had just acquired. At 7:30 a.m., he was sipping coffee in the coffee area, listening to the conversations of the Hayssen employees. They didn't know who he was. 

He heard chatter and laughter about the March Madness college basketball tournament. "But I noticed that the closer it got to 8 o'clock, the more the enthusiasm and joy started to drain out of their bodies," he writes. 

Later that day at a meeting, Chapman suggested Hayssen create a simple game to motivate sales, involving $100 bonuses for teams and individuals who sold the most parts in a week. Thirteen weeks later--at the end of the quarter--sales had gone up 20 percent. 

The lesson here is not that gamification can yield results. Everyone knows that. It's that Chapman didn't hesitate to act on his observation that the employees were spirited and competitive--until their workday began. 

3. Stay patient with skeptical employees. 

B-W uses the term "courageous patience" to describe its approach. B-W is willing to wait not months, but years, for employees to trust the "Guiding Principles" as legit--instead of receiving them as just another managerial attempt to wring more productivity from them.  

"We need to be empathetic to people who've never been in a trusting environment," says Chapman. "I hear some horrible things about the organizations they come from. You've got to give them a chance to trust and believe in you. They've been burnt so many times." 

4. Use documents to codify your beliefs. 

In addition to the "Guiding Principles," B-W has a "Leadership Checklist" managers can consult if they're not sure how to act in a given situation. The checklist has 12 items, and begins with a statement: "I accept the awesome responsibility of leadership. The following statements describe my essential actions as a leader."

"If you look at what sustains the country, it's documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," says Sisodia. "The same emphasis on documentation exists at B-W."

5. Stop favoring "star" talents and tap everyone's potential.

One of the most refreshing parts of Chapman's story is that he opposes the conventional view of talent that says, essentially, that if you hire "star" employees, you'll be on the road to success. 

"People often talk about getting rid of 'B players' and replacing them with 'A players'," writes Chapman, referring to Jack Welch's "fire the bottom 10 percent" philosophies at GE and Jim Collins's theory of "getting the right people on the bus." At B-W, "we think it is far more important to have a safe bus and make sure that the person driving the bus--the leader--knows how to take the people to a better place."

One of B-W's board members, Belden CEO John Stroup, shares this philosophy. He explains how it can make a big difference in employee morale, especially if you're building through acquisitions: "If right after an acquisition, you tell 30 percent of the staff, 'We don't want you here anymore,'" he says in the book, "that's a very different cultural experience than, 'Hey, welcome! We'd like to help you figure out how you can reach your potential.'" 

6. Err on the side of employee recognition. 

In business settings, it can be fashionable to ridicule the "trophy culture" that recognizes effort or small deeds. B-W stands in stark contrast to this ridicule. Chapman is all about employee recognition.

One of B-W's key findings is that you can achieve widespread employee recognition without watering down the value of the award.

For example, one of B-W's most prestigious internal honors is its SSR Award, in which employees nominate their peers for an outstanding cultural contribution, based on the "Guiding Principles." Even you don't win, you still receive a copy of what your nominator(s) wrote about you. 

The winner of the SSR Award gets to drive a classic convertible car around town for a week. Chapman notes that the comment winners most often hear is: "I wish I worked at a place like that." 

7. Enshrine your culture through training. 

How can B-W ensure a culture like this will last when its leader and philosopher king, Chapman, is no longer with the company? One way is through training. B-W has developed Barry-Wehmiller University (BWU) to educate employees in the company's distinct culture. The teachers are employees who've demonstrated through their work an exemplary grasp of the "Guiding Principles" and leadership checklist. 

When it began in 2007, BWU was just for B-W employees. Starting in 2011, BWU has welcomed leaders from other organizations. It's another way B-W can share its employee-first culture with the world. And ensure its survival. 

Published on: Sep 28, 2015