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The Truth is a Fearful Thing
They had been a very responsive group during a review of their use of various tools of Lean manufacturing. We talked about how it was going with their application of the 5S System. One of the participants reflected on how much time the use of Visual Controls had saved in their work areas. They said they thought their work processes could be improved a lot using Value Stream Mapping. Then one of said, “You know, George, when you were talking about the importance of candor, respect, and trust in making Lean sustainable I thought about a meeting we had with our CEO about six months ago.” And then he made a comment I’ve never forgotten. He said:
“Before we met with our CEO our director met with us. He said that he wanted to prep everyone on what to say and what not to say. What our CEO heard was an almost complete fiction.”
A complete fiction. I really didn’t know what to say following this revelation. Another participant broke the silence. She said, “What Bill just said isn’t anything new. Almost all information in this company gets filtered as it moves to the top.” By this time I had recovered enough to realize the group needed to address this question.
“And when this filtering of information happens, how will it affect the ability of your company’s leadership group to make intelligent decisions, decisions that will impact the future of the company?”
After a moment of silence, one of the group members stated the obvious, “It’s going to hurt the leadership group’s ability to make good decisions.” I responded, “And when they make bad decisions, that could also have a negative impact on your personal futures, correct?”
There’s only one rational answer to that question and they gave it. “Yes.” Then one of the group members said, “If hiding the truth from our CEO hurts our futures, why do we do it?”
Bingo, I thought. That’s really the heart of the matter. I asked, “Why does what we’ve just been talking about happen?”
A number of comments were made in response to this question. They all revolved around one issue. Fear. This group of very dedicated, intelligent employees said they were afraid of how their CEO might react to the truth. If he knew about the problems they were facing would he conclude that they were less than competent? Would he think some of them should be replaced? If they shared problems they were having with their CEO would their director get angry with them? Would doing this hurt their chances for a promotion?
I barely restrained myself from saying, “It’s really important that your leadership team have unfiltered information from the front lines. You simply have to tell it like it is when you meet with them.”
Why didn’t I say this? It is the truth, isn’t it? Why did I say instead, “This is an important discussion that we’ve been having and we need to continue it at our next meeting.”
I didn’t say it because I strongly suspected that a number of their observations on the impact of the truth were on target. The truth could trigger layoffs. The truth could impact promotions. The truth could cause employees to not get raises. In short, the truth could be a kind of time bomb and when it exploded the consequences could be deadly. At the very least, the consequences would be unpredictable and unpredictability is not something any of us like to live with.
For several days following this meeting, I thought a lot about what had been said. And I said to myself that it was lucky I hadn’t concluded the session with some consultantesque chatter about the value of the truth. Had I done this, group members would have quite correctly said to themselves, “George doesn’t understand this place at all or he wouldn’t have told us we should always be candid, always be honest, in telling upper management about problems we’re having.”
Later I thought about comments made by Hiroyoshi Yoshiki, one of the key members of the startup team at Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, on the way American employees thought about the word “problem.” Yoshiki said, “We were most surprised by the reaction of the people when we asked them about problems. The reactions from Americans were very, very negative.” He added, “The word ‘problem’ does not have a negative connotation for us in Japan. Americans think, ‘I messed up.’”
And I recalled that Yoshiki also said, “We were faced with the challenge of how to make the word ‘problem’ a positive word rather than a negative word. We worked hard to separate the problem from the person.”
Make the word “problem” a positive word. Separate the problem from the person. Easy to say. Hard to do. But absolutely necessary if the kind of robust communication upon which good leadership depends is going to happen. And it has to start at the top.
After all, this group’s telling their CEO a highly filtered version of the truth was learned behavior. Things had happened to them in the workplace that had taught them that subterfuge was in many situations the best road to take. Some of them had been personally attacked when problems in their workplace had surfaced. Some members of management had made it clear they didn’t want to hear about problems. So the group I was meeting with had come to learn over time that play-acting rather than truth-telling was often the way to go in their company.
“Play-acting” may work for a while between the walls of a company but it’s very dangerous to engage in. Harsh reality waits just outside the company’s doors and it has no patience with fantasy.
So an organization’s survival depends upon truth-telling. And making this happen has to start at the top. Leadership teams must communicate loud and clear that they want to hear about problems. They must themselves openly share problems they’re facing with employees. They must through their actions and words let all employees know that they view problems as opportunities to improve and that unless all employees spot problems, continuous improvement can’t happen. They must through their actions and words let all employees know that their focus is on identifying process weaknesses, not people weaknesses. In short, the entire organization must create a workplace in which candor, respect, and trust are the defining characteristics.
And when this happens, there’ll be no more play acting when groups meet with their CEO. They’ll realize that the truth is a beautiful thing.
The Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College has a wide variety of resources that will bring candor, respect, and trust to the workplace and, so doing, will make truth-telling the dominant mode of communication. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s schedule a meeting. I know you’ll find it time very well spent.