Trusting enough to say and hear the truth

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate on January 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

While it might simply seem like a fitting name for a blog (after all, blogs often are little more than shouts into the void), the title of my blog comes from a leadership idea I had a few years ago.

 The idea came to me after a chat with a co-worker. Outraged by some specific corporate action or inaction, my friend said, “Man, when I leave this place, they’re going to get an earful.” And it occurred to me what a waste it would be for him to wait until he’s headed out the door to share his thoughts.

 Obviously, there’s often good reason for such reticence. Usually, when an employee gets to that level of frustration, communication with his or her higher-ups has broken down. My friend wasn’t willing to unload because he had tried before and found that his thoughts weren’t welcomed or valued. Maybe he had ranted too often, or maybe he consistently offered up bad ideas. Or maybe his higher-ups were too focused on their own ideas to hear his, too insecure to listen to criticism, or too crazed to take a moment to think beyond the fires under their chairs.

 Regardless, the point is that any time an employee says, “I can’t wait to quit and tell these people what I think,” you’ve got a problem – with the employee, leadership, the organization, or all of the above. And that problem is trust. The employee doesn’t trust his supervisors or leaders to hear him without penalty, and the higher-ups don’t trust the employee to say something meaningful without an agenda.

 To counteract this, I’ve often thought leaders should encourage they people to write annual “That’s it, I’m outta here” or “Nobody asked me, but …” letters. In these letters, they would say all those things they swear they’d say if they were leaving, and they would say them without fear of retribution. They would trust the organization to receive suggestions and criticisms openly, and the organization would trust the employees to focus on constructive ideas and steer clear of petty rants or vindictive attacks.

 Of course, without such an environment of trust, this practice could be disastrous, and that environment isn’t something you can just one day conjure up. Trust like that requires individual and organizational maturity. And, let’s face it, that kind of maturity is too often in short supply.

 That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find. Quite the contrary: It means that, if you do find it, you’ll create that rare organization in which everyone has a voice and everyone uses that voice to the organization’s benefit. Make that kind of candor a goal, and you’ll not only have open and candid discussions, but you’ll also know you’ve got the kind of trust that undergirds great organizations.

 Would you have the guts to ask for an “I’m outta here” letter from your employees? Would they have the guts to write those letters? To sign them? If not, you’ve got some work to do.

Why does it matter? Because of one last point: When people talk about writing such letters, it’s because they care about the organization … they’re still passionate about what happens there. They’re engaged. But if they spend too long suppressing their thoughts, they slowly disengage. And then, when they do leave the organization – or as they languish for years after they should have left the organization – they’re no longer passionate enough to say what’s on their minds, even if they are asked.

 As a result, a lot of great ideas, insider insights and those thoughtful suggestions … they’re all lost. Forever. And so is any trust that might have come with them.


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