Peer-to-Peer: How do I create a culture where my staff feel safe telling me the truth?

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


The CEO of a systems integrator in Ottawa asks:

“It’s hard to run a company properly if your staff don’t tell you what’s really going on. But even though I think I’m an approachable person and I tell everyone my door is always open, I get the sense there are problems going on that I’m not hearing about. How do I create a culture where my staff feel safe telling me the truth?”

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Reader responses

Bill Kennedy, Project Manager, Serenic Software Canada:

“As a consultant involved in business process design, I too need people to open up and tell the unvarnished truth. To get people talking, I ask leading questions without targeting a single individual, such as, ‘Is there a way we could organize the warehouse so that it is easier for both the sales staff and the warehouse staff?’ or ‘What could we all do to reduce the time it takes to get an invoice out the door?'”

Chris Mallmann, President, The Wardrobe Workshop Inc.:

“I have found the Golden Rule for managing staff is ‘Do unto others and they will do unto you. If you want them to be open and honest with you, you have to do the same. [If you] share personal thoughts and feelings with staff first, then they will not hesitate to share the same with you. I also moan about my foolish mistakes in front of everyone and then ask them to help me fix the situation. As a result they come to me and say ‘I made a mistake here. What can I do to fix it?’ Honesty begets honesty, and the boss is the one who needs to create it in the first place. Loyalty is a two-way street!”

Michelle Kalra, Pivotal Integrated HR Solutions:

“Culture, by definition, is created over time. There are many ‘tips’ to building trust, but the two key principles are consistency and patience. Trust can take years to build up, and yet can be eroded much more quickly. Importantly, no one person in any organization can ‘create a culture’. Culture is the product of many people and includes an organization’s collective history and evolution. To this point, make sure that other leaders in the organization are as consistent in their trust building efforts. Because organizational leaders have much impact, while no one person can ‘create’ it, collectively you can certainly influence it.

You may never create a safe utopia where employees will tell you everything. A more realistic goal may be to create a culture where employees believe that your door is always open whether they choose to walk through it and talk to you or not. More than likely, if they really believe it, you will have gone a long way in creating a culture of trust.

Some practical tips on building trust: Practice what you preach — ‘walk the talk’, keep your promises, listen, do not judge.

It’s also a good idea to take the initiative and ‘go first’ as a leader focused on building trust and encouraging communication. Invite employees through the door for one-on-one discussions. Go back to the tried-and-true principles of ‘management by walking around’. Be visible within employee groups, open with employees, and communicative. This, over time, should invite the same.”

Joan A. Pajunen, TrendSeek International:

“Changing a culture often takes a couple of years of hard, targeted work. Here are some questions I ask clients when faced with this issue:

  1. Are you open and sharing with your employees?Do you include them in your business plans; do they know gross margin and profit numbers? If you don’t trust them with this information, how can they give you targeted input?
  2. What happened to the last person who brought you an idea or information?Were they rewarded even if you did not like the information or idea?
  3. How often do you have ‘one-on-one’conversations with staff?If you aren’t talking them in an intimate way then how can you expect them to do the same to you?
  4. When did you last hold a team meeting with a formal agenda aimed at uncovering ways to increase productivity or working conditions?Your employees (especially the front line ones) know every working condition weakness and productivity waster and have all the ideas needed to make improvements.
  5. When was the last time that you made a change to the organization or work processes as a result of a suggestion or comment from an employee?If there is no trust that they will be heard then they won’t speak.
  6. Finally, what is your emotional response when you are told that you are screwing up?If your first emotion is defence or frustration or anger, no matter what words you use, the emotion will be felt by those who give you the news. Prepare yourself by creating a mantra that says ‘I really want to hear this and it will be good for us in the long run’.
    One of the reasons the Japanese kicked *** in the North American auto industry was that they adopted a practice of rewarding employees for finding mistakes. They gave the right to stop a production line to a junior employee because the quicker the problem is identified the less damage it does and the easier it is to fix it. Maybe this approach would work for you.”

For her answer, Joan willreceive a copy of Make It Legal: What every Canadian entrepreneur needs to know about the law, by Margaret Kerr and Joann Kurtz.

Other questions.

Watch for another Peer-to-Peer Poll in the next PROFIT-Xtra.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com