By Wil Brewer

Trite but true, the higher you move up in an organization, the further removed you are from the customer and those dealing with the customer. Furthermore, the more vulnerable you are to filtered information. Unfortunately, I see all too often in many companies employees asking themselves the following before reporting up the chain of command:

  • What does he want to hear?
  • What doesn't she want to hear?
  • How will it impact me if she doesn't like it?
  • Is this an area of sensitivity where the CEO or a senior executive has messed up?
  • Will he shoot the messenger?
  • Is this a major blind spot and a place where angels fear to tread?
  • Will my boss look like an idiot if the bad news gets to the next level up?

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about leaders being able to confront the brutal facts. Only when you agree that the emperor has no clothes, Collins points out, can you begin to dress him. The challenge is to create an environment where managers and those lower down are willing to speak up and share their views. Importantly, employees need to know that constructive opinions and criticisms are welcomed and retribution isn't lurking around the corner. This is the culture to which all organizations should aspire.

What happens if you don't cultivate that kind of culture? The organization rejects dissenting views and penalizes those who express them. Just ask the former head of corporate quality audit at General Motors, who issued warnings about vehicle safety back in 1994, only to be told to stay out of safety issues. Needless to say, he was transferred out of his job. He even wrote to GM's board in 2002 expressing his concerns. The issues were abundantly clear, yet senior management was unwilling to confront the problem and, even worse, take the steps to correct the defects. The results were needless deaths and a cost to GM that will now be in the billions.

An open culture: the welcoming of ideas and challenges to opinions and authority: starts at the top. It's part of leadership. It's part of motivating. It's part of an ethos that nurtures creative, innovative thinking and welcomes the irritating question you often hear from new hires: "Why are we doing this?" Companies must create a culture where employees at all levels challenge the status quo by asking why.

The need to speak up and challenge and the willingness to do so is not confined to large corporations. It's frequently relevant in small businesses and especially family businesses, where one doesn't tread on the toes of a favored or protected family member or where ownership encroaches on areas where they should not be involved. There is no need to elaborate further on this!

Look within and encourage discussion within the leadership team and lower down in the organization. Does your organization pass the acid test? Employee engagement surveys will certainly bring these issues to the surface, as long as the right questions are asked and opinions solicited. And if it's anonymous, you'll get the answers you need to know!

Wil Brewer, President of Performance-Solutions-Group, Inc. in Stamford, founded the company in August 2006 following fifteen years as COO of Performance Management, Inc., in which he was a major stockholder. He brings unusual depth and breadth with ten years of CEO experience in industry and twenty years of consulting experience (including Deloitte and Touche) in small to large companies, Fortune 500s and not-for-profits. Primary focus has been on improving performance and productivity through performance management, performance-based compensation, diagnostic surveys, strategic planning, coaching and training.