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Pretentious public versus truthful private comments

Published:Sunday | November 24, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Bridging the communications gap

From one perspective, when I get hired to help a company transform its culture, my job is an easy one.

All I need to remember is that the secret to a large-scale transformation is closing the gap between the pretentious stuff being said in public, and the real truth being said in private.

When the public-private gap closes, the project is almost over - at this point, everyone in the company can work together on the same goals with a common understanding of the challenges at hand.

By contrast, the opposite is true. The most dysfunctional firms are ones in which the gap is widest and keeps increasing. In these stressful cultures, workers distrust whatever managers say, while managers hate the fact that workers smile in silent assent in public, but complain bitterly in private.

A few smart alecks complain that this is all consultants do: get paid to tell what time it is by looking at the client's watch.

There's an element of truth to this old saying. What's often missed, however, is the fact that in the typical company, there are a lot of timepieces floating around, each a little different from the next.

Finding out what people know, who to listen to, and who to ignore, isn't easy. Yet, most consultants will admit that the best answers are often sitting in the minds - and on the laptops - of a handful of employees. Savvy companies do not need to wait until they have the funds to hire an expert; they can start right away to close the public-private gap by following these steps to unlock important conversations:

1. Encourage Employees to Speak Up.

Employees frequently tell me that it's dangerous to speak out in public. Apple's CEO recently fired an employee in a public meeting, confirming an undeniable danger.

Many employees won't say a word of public truth until things become really bad, in the final desperate moments. However, long before things get to that point, employees can encourage each other to speak out in small ways.

It's not necessary to start at the top, as many changes happen in companies because a groundswell from below becomes too big to ignore. The bottom-up approach is slower, but it starts with ordinary employees empowering each other to speak up.

2. Overcoming Biases.

To close a big gap, it's much quicker — and less expensive - to address the biases of a small executive team, rather than an entire body of employees. Yet, many executives argue that employees need to change first. They are wrong.

Leaders often don't realise that they are expected to examine themselves for obstructive thinking. This effort takes energy and rigour, and most executive teams aren't good at it.

Instead, they foster their own blind spots, fooling themselves into thinking that all is well. For example, BlackBerry's founders did a fine job of doing so, dragging their market share down from over 50 per cent in North America in 2008, to less than 10 per cent today.

It's double-loop ignorance - not knowing but also not having a clue that you don't know, and in fact, convincing yourself that you do know.

Unfortunately, the power structure in every company makes this easy. It takes diligence to reverse the inevitable slide into hubris.

3. Changing Cynical Listening.

This hubris hardens some employees. For refuge, they turn to hard-core cynicism and suspicion - everything that management says or does is seen as an evil and selfish attempt to have their own way.

They don't realise what I see when I work with executives. Rarely is there Machiavellian malice in the executive suite. Usually, there's just incompetent communication.

Managers too, can be cynical, according to the research in Why Workers Won't Work: The Case Study of Jamaica by Ken Carter. After being promoted to the supervisory ranks, their mindset shifts. They start to agree with the premise: the only thing that motivates their former colleagues is money.

The gap between public and private conversations only widens when these cynical ways of listening are left unattended.

Sometimes, an outsider like myself is required to break the deadlock. But there is another approach - to form a special employee/management team. In my early career at AT&T, I was a member of such a team which existed for two years.

instant credibility

During the team's existence, I learned that telling the truth openly develops instant credibility, especially when there's a big gap. Also, the truth creates space for people to talk openly as their own, less radical thoughts come out.

But my biggest discovery was how long change takes: our employee/management team was ultimately successful, but the results came much slower than I expected.

The three steps I mentioned don't produce an instant end result, but they do get the ball rolling, as they begin to close the public-private communication gap.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of "Bill's ImPerfect Time Management Adventure". Emailcolumns@fwconsulting.com