When leaders want to create an open culture where people are willing to speak up and challenge one another, they often start by listening. This is a good instinct. But listening with your ears will only take you so far. You also need to demonstrate with words that you truly want people to raise risky issues.
Take the former president of a major defense company, whom I will call Phil. No one at the 13,000-employee firm believed Phil when he announced that he was going to create a culture of candor and openness. And why should they? He already had three strikes against him: his workforce, his past performance, and his manner.
First, Phil’s workforce had successfully repelled every attempt at culture change in previous decades. Well-intended change efforts had continually failed. Why would this time be different? Second, his own leadership history was not exactly one of give-and-take. He had a command and control style and the closest he got to dialogue was one-way “management briefings” he held monthly with his “chain of command.” And finally, he was imposingly large, his face was one of studied expressionlessness, and his voice had an involuntary imperiousness even when asking you to pass the salt.
And yet, Phil needed to dramatically improve quality and costs at the 60-year-old tactical aircraft designer and manufacturer — and he knew that the stifling culture was suppressing the very ideas he needed. Once he set out to better engage his employees, however, within a matter of months he succeeded at transforming the company culture.
Like many leaders, Phil’s first attempt at fostering candor was by using his ears. And it immediately fell flat. At the end of a highly scripted management briefing he announced, “I will now take questions. You may ask anything you wish.” He scanned the audience for raised hands. None. Thirty painful seconds later he would have been happy for even a twitch to indicate engagement. Crickets.
While some executives would have blamed the audience for its timidity, Phil understood the problem was a lack of safety. He reasoned that the behavior he was trying to encourage was so counter-cultural that any rational person would be terrified to try it.
With the studied intensity of a good engineer, he decided to demonstrate that this defense company was a safe place to talk about anything. Employees had decades of data from their own painful experiences that told them taking a risk to raise controversial questions was quickly punished. Phil and his senior team needed to produce enough disconfirming data to call these fears into question.
Phil did four things that went beyond listening:
- Praise publicly. He created a safe forum for people to raise questions—then spoke publicly about those who asked them in laudatory ways. It may sound like small potatoes, but simply adding a column called “Ask the President” to the weekly internal newsletter was a daring move. He instructed his communication team to forward him the most universally asked and highly sensitive questions. He personally penned every response. He was careful to sympathize with the questioners and to validate their concerns. The workforce took note—seeing evidence that disagreement would no longer be treated as insubordination. Questions could be asked anonymously or not, and over time more and more of the questioners identified themselves — which gave Phil a chance to commend them in the newsletter for their candor. Public praise is more about influencing those who hear it than those who receive it.
- Prime the pump. Phil began meeting regularly with groups of opinion leaders from throughout the organization — encouraging them to bring their toughest questions. One topic that never came up was criticism of a major reorganization Phil imposed two years previously. So he primed the pump. In one of these sessions he said, “How are you feeling about the IPT/Team structure we started two years ago? I’m sure there are frustrations with this one. What barriers are you facing? What isn’t working?” When people don’t feel safe speaking up, leaders can show that it is safe by saying the hard things themselves. By saying the unsayable, and doing so with a tone of voice that suggested respect for this view, Phil created a little more safety. And the dam burst. For the next 90 minutes the group poured out their views on the inadequacies of the new structure. Phil acknowledged their concerns and invited them to discuss modifications to the model. Most importantly, this influential group began spreading the word that Phil was sincere about being open to criticism.
- Lead by teaching. Phil went beyond encouraging openness to teaching it. He and his senior team taught hour-long sessions on how to have what my colleagues and I call “crucial conversations” — how to diffuse strong emotions, how to speak candidly without provoking resistance, how to quickly build rapport, and so on. As people acquired these new skills, their confidence in speaking up increased. The fact that Phil personally taught the skills showed how invested he was in having open conversations.
- Sacrifice ego. On one memorable occasion Phil said in front of a group of middle managers: “I’ve been told I am unapproachable. I don’t know what that means. I would appreciate any specific feedback any of you would be willing to offer me.” The rest of the group looked on in awe as one brave soul, a manager named Terry, raised his hand. “I would be happy to, Phil.” Terry met later with Phil and gave a couple of suggestions – which Phil then shared publicly. Phil sacrificed his ego to show how much he valued candor and openness and that people were safe with him.
For two years my colleagues and I measured the frequency of people raising risky issues with peers, subordinates, as well as with senior managers at this defense company. Within the first few months of Phil’s campaign, these measures shot up by double digits, and continued to increase during the rest of this period. For example, employees were 15% more likely to report that they were comfortable sharing bad news up the chain of command—a remarkable change from the past.
Listening matters. But sometimes you’ve got to open your mouth too and make positive statements to generate the safety people need.
Article by Joseph Grenny, Shared by Kurt Birky
How a password changed one man’s life for the better
by Mauricio Estrella
“How could she do something like this to me?” said the voice in my head, over and over. It was 2011 and I was stuck in middle of a pretty bad depression due to my divorce. Thankfully, I think I was smart enough (and had great people around me) so I managed my way out. One day I walk into the office, and my computer screen showed me the following message:
“Your password has expired. Click ‘Change password’ to change your password.”
I read this dumb message in my mind with angry grandpa voice: The darn password has expired. At my workplace, the Microsoft Exchange server is configured to ask thousands of employees around the planet to change their passwords. Every 30 days. Here what’s annoying: The server forces us to use at least one UPPERCASE character, at least one lowercase alphabetic character, at least one symbol and at least one number. Oh, and the whole thing can’t be less than 8 characters. And I can’t use any of the same passwords I’ve used in the last 3 months. I was furious that morning. A sizzling hot Tuesday, it was 9:40 a.m and I was late to work. I was still wearing my bike helmet and had forgotten to eat breakfast. I needed to get things done before a 10 a.m. meeting and changing passwords was going to be a huge waste of time. As the input field with the pulsating cursor was waiting for me to type a password — something I’d use many times during every day — I remembered a tip I heard from my former boss. And I decided: I’m gonna use a password to change my life. It was obvious that I couldn’t focus on getting things done with my current lifestyle and mood. Of course, there were clear indicators of what I needed to do — or what I had to achieve — in order to regain control of my life, but we often don’t pay attention to these clues.
My password became the indicator. My password reminded me that I shouldn’t let myself be victim of my recent break up, and that I’m strong enough to do something about it.
My password became: “Forgive@h3r”
I had to type this statement several times a day. Each time my computer would lock. Each time my screensaver with her photo would appear. Each time I would come back from eating lunch alone. In my mind, I went with the mantra that I didn’t type a password. In my mind, I wrote “Forgive her” every day, for one month. That simple action changed the way I looked at my ex-wife. That constant reminder that I should forgive her led me to accept the way things happened at the end of my marriage, and embrace a new way of dealing with the depression that I was drowning into. In the following days, my mood improved drastically. By the end of the second week, I noticed that this password became less powerful, and it started to lose its effect. A quick refresh of this “mantra” helped me. I thought to myself “I forgive her” as I typed it, every time. The healing effect of it came back almost immediately.
Can password therapy really improve your life?
One month later, my dear exchange server asked me again to renew my password. I thought about the next thing I had to get done. My password became: Quit@smoking4ever. And guess what happened. I quit smoking overnight. This password was a painful one to type during that month, but doing it helped me to yell at myself in my mind, as I typed that statement. It motivated me to follow my monthly goal. One month later, my password became: Save4trip@thailand. Guess where I went 3 months later. Thailand. With savings. So, I learned that I can truly change my life if I play it right. I kept doing this repeatedly month after month, with great results.
Here are some of my passwords from the last 2 years, so you get an idea of how my life has changed, thanks to this method:
- Forgive@her (to my ex-wife, who started it all.)
- Quit@smoking4ever (It worked.)
- Save4trip@thailand (It worked.)
- Eat2times@day (It never worked, still fat.)
- Sleep@before12 (It worked.)
- Ask@her4date (It worked. I fell in love again.)
- No@drinking2months (It worked. I feel better.)
- Get@c4t! (It worked. I have a beautiful cat.)
- Facetime2mom@sunday (It worked. I talk with my mom every week.)
And the one for last month: Save4@ring. I still anxiously await each month so I can change my password into something that I need to get done. This method has consistently worked for me for the last 2 years, and I have shared it with a few close friends and relatives. I didn’t think it was a breakthrough in tiny-habits but it did have a great impact in my life, so that’s why I’m sharing it with you. If you try it with the right mindset and attitude, maybe it could help change your life, too.
Oh, and remember: for added security, try to be a bit more complex with the words. Add symbols or numbers, or scramble a bit the beginning or the ending of your password string. S4f3ty_f1rst!
Shared by Tiffany Walker