SUCCESSFUL EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES TRUTH. ARE YOU WILLING TO HEAR IT? ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES WILLING TO EXPRESS IT?
BY MEREDITH HABERFELD – May 11, 2015 | 5:00 AM
Gossip not only kills morale; it kills the bottom line.
No matter its delivery—an eye roll, whispered caution about a supervisor’s temper, old-fashioned talking behind someone’s back—gossip in any form is a symptom of a large and damaging problem. If your employees are too uncomfortable to discuss their gripes directly with leadership, your organization lacks a culture of open communication.
Take the example of a hotel chain my team and I recently advised. Thanks to a CEO with a well-meaning but aggressive personality, the business suffered from gossip at the highest level. Most of the senior executives felt intimidated and held back by the CEO’s abrasive management style. They feared harsh criticism, possibly in a public forum—which meant addressing the issue directly felt too risky. Instead, they did what countless employees across the world do: commiserated amongst each other, further perpetuating their case that the CEO was the “bad guy” and the executives his poor victims. This cycle kept repeating itself and led to a low level of senior collaboration, low morale, and multiple costly failures from a highly competent and capable team.
SUCCESSFUL LEADERS SERVE AS EXAMPLES OF TRUTH TELLING, EVEN IF THAT REQUIRES CHALLENGING CONVERSATIONS.
Truly great cultures and successful, ongoing employee engagement requires one thing above all others: truth. My colleagues and I advise clients to declare their workplaces gossip-free zones. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. The absence of gossip also means the absence of rivalries, hidden agendas, and withholding information. It’s simply the best way to create teams that hum and a thriving culture.
In the spirit of open communication, here are three tips to get you started.
STEP 1: CREATE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT TO VENT
Even though gossip never ultimately resolves issues, it’s often seen as a safer way to be heard and validated. Your job as a leader is to make it safe for people to get real and to have frank, open conversations with the colleague who is responsible for an upset, rather than just vent about it to a colleague.
We lead clients through “empty the bucket” sessions that get the real conversations out there. These sessions free up time, emotional space, and productivity—they show people in the company at all levels the path to the end of back-channel gossip and they set the foundation of truth, trust, and open communication.
The key to these sessions is creating an environment where truth telling feels safe. This includes:
- Be appreciative of the courage it takes to divulge one’s messy truth.
- Listen generously, with empathy and without agenda.
- Don’t add opinions or suggestions now. Your job is to give the person the chance to unpack their thoughts fully—even once you think you “get it.”
- When someone shares something vulnerable, that information can’t be used against the person. Period.
- At the end of the session, allow the talker to be quiet and reflect. When it seems like the talker may be done, offer authentic thanks and ask, “Is there anything else?”
Once established in a culture, empty-the-bucket sessions happen spontaneously and are used to uncover and address the real conversations and the issues impacting performance that are challenging and sticky to address. These conversations leave people aligned, connected, and ready to move forward in partnership.
STEP 2: SET AN EXAMPLE FROM THE TOP
It’s important to create a self-reinforcing culture that starts with clear expectations and training, and weaves throughout the entire company. Hold every person accountable—and that means everyone. One or two high-performing or very senior individuals given a free pass on a no-gossip policy contaminates the entire effort.
ALL THE TEQUILA FRIDAYS IN THE WORLD ARE MEANINGLESS IF TRANSPARENCY ISN’T MODELED FROM THE TOP DOWN.
Leaders, in particular, undermine their own efforts more than they realize. All the Tequila Fridays in the world are meaningless if transparency isn’t modeled from the top down. We worked with an executive at a lifestyle company who felt the impact of colleagues talking about her without addressing the problem with her directly.
During a meeting, she noticed the most barely detectable eye roll exchanged between her CEO and COO. She realized the subliminal message was about her—and, in an instant, went from loving her job to the verge of quitting. An incident as seemingly minor as this one can extinguish all the magic and promise of culture-building efforts. It erodes trust.
Successful leaders serve as examples of truth telling, even if that requires challenging conversations. They don’t bad-mouth others behind their backs. They let everyone around them know where they stand and they tackle issues directly—even the seemingly undiscussable ones. This is the only way to build a foundation of trust.
STEP 3: TAKE ACTION ON FEEDBACK
If you’ve already completed the first two steps, you’re probably feeling pretty good about your organization’s commitment to open communication. But don’t enter your company into any “best places to work” competitions just yet. For long-term success, you must genuinely consider and do something about the feedback all that openness has wrought.
One client, a large retailer, invested significant time and money into a robust employee engagement program. They encouraged managers and vice presidents to start paying more attention to how their teams were feeling, and to truly listen to subordinates’ complaints and concerns. But the entire initiative rang hollow—and low engagement scores prevailed—because until recently the managers themselves didn’t feel heard or valued by their supervisors. They felt their feedback was met with denial by the company’s most senior team. Even worse, they sensed that managers who dared to communicate challenging or unpopular notions faced consequences like fewer opportunities for advancement.
This perception of the company culture as a suppressive one was so woven throughout the company that it self-perpetuated many times over. Nearly everyone at corporate headquarters gossiped about this perception—everyone, that is, except the people whose actions created the environment in the first place. The senior executives, much like the hotel CEO, were unable to confront or even recognize their part in the problem.
Empty-the-bucket sessions and gossip-free policies set the stage for open, truthful communication. But they’ll only succeed if leaders continue to embrace and listen to negative, uncomfortable feedback long after the initial session ends. And, unless you act on the feedback, all your engagement efforts will be nothing more than (very expensive) icing slapped on top of a mud pie.
Meredith Haberfeld is a corporate change agent who’s taught at institutions from the Esalen Institute to MIT. She’s founder and CEO of ThinkHuman, a consultancy that advises fast-growth organizations (including SoulCycle and Spotify) on employee engagement, team performance, and culture transformation.