If you lead or aspire to lead an organisation, it’s critical to know what’s really going on in the business. When it comes to the truth of what’s happening in an organisation, I’m a big fan of the late W. Edwards Deming, who I think would have believed, as I do, that the difference between Einstein’s laws of relativity and the laws of statistics is that Einstein’s laws are only relevant in this Universe! It’s fair to say that data collected from statistically stable systems is the gold standard in business information. However, even if you can successfully capture the data from your business systems free of human influence, there remains the problem of communicating the interpretation of the statistics produced, which again falls to humans, and having it believed, let alone acted on. Therein lies a cold hard reality – statistics can never tell the whole story. You need your people to report ‘their truth’, subjective though it may be. If they feel listened to and valued, real communication is possible. This is when you need the X factor only a genuine human to human relationships will provide.
The ‘perfect job’
I once had a boss who was particularly fond of muttering under his breath, “This job would be perfect if it weren’t for staff and customers!” Of course, this is ridiculous, even if the eradication of staff is a far more plausible idea in 2022 than when I first heard these utterances. Even if you could eradicate staff, you wouldn’t because they are the source of growth. Furthermore, we all need customers! But let’s be honest, staff can create many problems, especially if they are not adequately engaged with the business or are left trying to work out what is going on. Responsibility for both matters lie squarely on the CEO’s desk.
The grapevine only flourishes when authoritative sources of information are unavailable. It becomes an in-house version of the telephone game with slight variances added at every iteration. The prospective damage can be enormous from a business perspective, and the opportunity costs are even greater. Miscommunicated company policies and procedures cause disruption, damage and even injuries or worse. Hence, the need to appropriately communicate policies and procedures is evident. Not so obvious, however, is the need for each and every employee to feel heard, valued and validated as an authority on their work; this is the real value of a healthy internal communications system.
Where does the responsibility lie?
In the words of William Edwards Deming, “I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this; 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management) 6% special”. In other words, those who control the system are responsible for it functioning correctly, not those operating within the system. It is worth noting that the word ‘special’ in the above quote includes every exceptional cause of disruption to the system, not just human error. Deming famously campaigned against any form of numerical measurement of individual worker output. He argued, “Any worker will fill a quota if they’re not responsible for the losses” and “Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his[her] job, anyone may present to his[her] boss only good news”. In the early 2000s, I took over leading a manufacturing company that had been held to numerical measurements. Trust in management had fallen through the floor and communication with it. They were bleeding cash, and substantial losses had been recorded in the previous financial year. By listening to Deming’s advice, acting on it and building relationships within the team, we delivered a massive turnaround within a year, creating profits way above industry standards and built on this in successive years.
Your frontline team members are your eyes and ears. They see what’s working and what isn’t. If they feel valued, part of the team AND have access to a communication system in which they have confidence, they will provide you with invaluable information on the overall business system that only YOU as the boss can change. Your staff have a vested interest in your business succeeding. Their income depends on it and maybe their future as well. Without your staff on board, you risk flying blind to what’s really going wrong whenever a challenge strikes. Staff will never tell you what they think you could do to resolve the situation without feeling safe and valued. Ensuring staff feel valued, part of the team and have confidence is the key. A failure here risks creating disgruntled workers. At best, a disgruntled, disengaged worker will leave and find another job. At worst, they could stay, and the costs of their disengagement will continue to mount up.
MBWA vs MBA
Tom Peters coined the initialism MBWA – Management By Walking Around – of which Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, is reported to have said, “I don’t need an MBA, I have an MBWA”. To a great extent, Mr. Walton was on the money; he certainly walked the floor of thousands of Walmarts across the USA to engage with staff on the ground. MBWA involves the leader – ideally the CEO – randomly walking around their place(s) of business, meeting staff and listening to their ideas and concerns, which is distinctly different from talking to them. A business leader can have all the qualifications in the world, but if they don't show their team members courtesy and respect and, ideally, walk the floor so they can build a relationship with each of them, their prospects of success are dim.
What about those who lead a large organisation? Surely it would be impossible for the CEO of a substantial enterprise to build a relationship with thousands to tens of thousands of staff by MBWA? I agree; however, employee engagement is nevertheless their responsibility. It is the CEO who sets the tone and has the final say on company structure and how information is distributed throughout the organisation. They set the example for all management levels by treating their direct reports the way they expect them to treat their staff. They make the decision to hire temps, casual or permanent staff by way of policy settings, and that on its own is a statement as to how valued staff are by the organisation. I was a frequent flier when Qantas was restructuring and making thousands of permanent staff casual. If you wanted to know the dirt on Qantas at the time, all you had to do was ask the cabin crew! I should know because I did. They didn’t hesitate to lay out all the reasons why you shouldn’t fly Qantas, how they mistreated staff and didn’t care about their customers. I have no idea how true it was, but that is beside the point. Any CEO would be horrified to discover that their staff speak to customers in this way.
Disengaged staff members can be very expensive, but they also offer a great opportunity for change. By actively seeking to learn why they are feeling disgruntled, and then taking action to show you have listened and are present to their pain, you build trust. Managers at all levels need to ensure they are out there walking the floor and listening to their team’s ideas and concerns. There needs to be regular formal meetings that dovetail all the way up to the boardroom, where two-way communication is transmitted up and down the line. Furthermore, these regular formal meetings should be supplemented by a continuous improvement programme based on employee reports that are free from accusations and repercussions. It needs to be a system where employees are encouraged to share their ideas and concerns without assigning blame. In this way, their ideas and concerns can be formally assessed and either acted upon or replied to so the employee understands the outcome and the reason for it.
Leaders consistently ignore the power of making employees feel safe and engaged within organisations large and small. All too often, the leaders concerned are not prepared to make themselves vulnerable enough to communicate with their staff, to be truly present to them as one human to another. They are either too busy or too important and cannot see the value in listening to the ‘uneducated lesser beings’ in their organisation. Arrogance is the opposite of vulnerability and is poison to any leader. Legend has it that the young car detailer who suggested Avis use cable ties to secure the hubcaps onto their cars saved them millions across the globe. The international giant might have missed this simple yet effective idea had one of its executive managers not paid attention and taken the time to ask the young team member what he was doing and why. That’s the power of creating a culture in which staff are encouraged and feel safe to speak their truth!