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Openness, Candor and Respect

The environment people work in can make a huge difference to their productivity. Employ a three-pronged approach of openness, candor and respect to get the best out of your employees.

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How are motivation and enthusiasm affected by the environment in which people work? My most lasting impression regarding this question occurred early in my career. Having been tasked with putting together a plan to address the problems of a seriously troubled sales and service business unit, I was then appointed to head the business and implement the plan.

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The structural changes called for in the turnaround plan were quite significant, and to effect these changes we needed to bring in people with strong expertise in several key areas. Bob, a key member of the turnaround planning team, joined me assuming responsibility for operations and customer service. After evaluating his new team and the requirements of the plan, and after considering a number of candidates, Bob decided to add David to his team.

David, an 18-year employee, had been involved with this division many years earlier, before moving into a support role in the parent company. With his history in the company it was easy for me to get credible feedback on him. After a number of inquiries I found out that even though David had solid experience, he was not much of a go-getter, did an average job and never did more than he was asked to do. This was not my idea of the ideal candidate.

Bob’s choice made no sense to me and I challenged his decision. But Bob was adamant that David had the right expertise and was the person he needed. Although I still had serious misgivings, I agreed to go with Bob’s decision, but on one condition — I could meet with David and explain to him what we were trying to accomplish, share my thoughts on the rationale for the changes that had been proposed, and describe in detail what I expected of him. In my mind I was putting him on notice. While I did find David to be knowledgeable, I was very concerned about his motivation and initiative. I couldn’t forget all the negative feedback.

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What followed next shocked me. David jumped right in, laid out a plan, got buy-in from several different groups and then aggressively implemented his plan well ahead of schedule. And the results his team produced exceeded even my “stretch” plan. His performance was beyond my expectations — by a mile.

While pleasantly surprised, I couldn’t understand how the earlier feedback could have been so wrong. How was everybody so off the mark? But the fact is that they weren’t off the mark. In the past, David had performed just as they said. So what caused the change in David’s enthusiasm, commitment and ultimately, his performance?

David offered clues when, about a year into a very successful turnaround, he asked to meet with me one-on-one. He began by thanking me. He said, “For the last ten years I dreaded coming to work. But in the last year I feel like I have been reborn. I love my job and I can’t wait to come to work every morning. I finally had an opportunity to use my knowledge and experience – and someone was actually willing to listen to my ideas!”

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Pursuing this further, I asked David directly why he had not performed with this intensity before. His answer was equally revealing. He said, “Why should I? I was just a cog in the machine. Decisions were made by a small group of people and I never understood why we did half of what we did. Besides, no matter what I did, I would never get the recognition or reward – I was not a part of the ‘in crowd.'”

Although I did not realize it at the time, David had offered up quite a few insights into motivating people. But it took me several years and a number of similar experiences to fully understand the implications of what David had told me. What I’ve learned is that regardless of a person’s innate talent, knowledge and experience, there are certain principles that if followed, will draw out the best a person has to offer.

So what is the insight that David offered? First of all, the cornerstone of an environment that encourages people to give their all is openness. If people are to commit themselves fully and enthusiastically to any endeavor, they must truly feel like they are a part of it. They must believe that they are working on the inside, rather than made to feel like they are on the outside looking in.

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In David’s mind, he had previously been out of the information loop. Whether that was intentional, as is too often the case, or simply the result of poor communication, it didn’t matter. David felt the same in either case – he felt like an outsider.

Furthermore, he didn’t understand why decisions were being made and thus had no basis on which to formulate or express his ideas. And even if he did have good ideas, he didn’t believe that “they” were open to his ideas. With no opportunity to be heard, how could he possibly feel like an insider?

Finally, David felt as though key decisions were tainted by politics. When important decisions on things like promotions, compensation and other rewards are based on politics, it sends a clear message to those not in the select political group that they are not as valued as others. What can be more de-motivating?

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As it turned out, my early “sit down” with David was very motivating to him — even though my intended purpose had been quite different. He told me that it was the first time in his career someone opened up to him — sharing details of the plan, the rationale behind it, and discussing specifically what was expected of him. This was a powerful message to me.

Yet what I came to realize in the ensuing years was that pursuing the principle of openness — inviting everyone “inside the tent” — presented challenges if it was not appropriately balanced by other principles. As more and more people are made to feel a part of the company, and in turn feel comfortable contributing their talents and ideas, conflicts will inevitably arise. What then becomes crucial is how those conflicts are ultimately resolved. Thus, in the successful pursuit of openness, two important corollary principles — candor and respect — must be a part of the operating environment.

Candor implies that ideas put forth will be dealt with in an honest and straightforward way. Decisions cannot be avoided because we want to minimize conflict; they cannot be made for political expediency; and they cannot be allowed to lead to personal animosity and in-fighting between people or groups. Instead, decisions must be made objectively — based on their true merits and on what is best for the company.

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Yet this candor in resolving conflicts can also lead to problems if not handled appropriately. The interaction that takes place between people in the resolution process must be firmly grounded in one unconditional principle — personal respect. Ideas can and should be vigorously debated. However, that intellectual debate should never become a personal attack on the individual offering the idea or debating its merits. People and ideas should be kept separate — such a notion facilitates both the creative process and minimizes the undesirable consequences of candid debate. There is nothing more de-motivating, both to the individual and those who observe the interactions, than the failure to demonstrate personal respect.

Since David was precisely the same person with precisely the same skills and capabilities, how do we explain the dramatic change in his performance? David’s motivation and resulting behavior changed because he was invited inside the tent.

Is engendering openness, candor and respect something that the CEO or business unit leader has to do alone? No, in fact it is everyone’s responsibility. But the business unit leader’s behavior will become the model followed by the rest of the organization.

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Adhering to these three principles will go a long way in sustaining, rather than strangling people’s motivation and enthusiasm.