I worked as a consultant for many years before becoming the CEO of Red Hat. One of the most surprising aspects of that work was that people would open up to me, an outsider, about all the elephants in the room — but they were too polite or embarrassed to call out the obvious issues or blame their peers inside their own organizations. My fellow consultants and I would sometimes joke that just about every individual inside a company could immediately tell you what was going wrong and what needed fixing. But whenever everybody convened for a meeting to point out those very issues, you wouldn’t hear a peep about anything that could be perceived as negative. To our amazement, they were more open to hearing feedback from us, the outsiders, than from their own colleagues.
Though this might be good for the consulting business, shouldn’t companies be having candid conversations — since they almost always know the solution to their problem — on their own? Wouldn’t the ability to share open and honest feedback throughout the organization improve their chances of addressing their issues, and more quickly?
These are the questions that keep me up at night as a CEO. Luckily, the practices of open dialogue and providing constant feedback were already in place and part of Red Hat’s DNA when I joined the company. Because Red Hat sprang from the world of open source software — a community whose members pride themselves on delivering open and honest feedback — having candid, and what others might call difficult, conversations is the norm. We debate, we argue, and we complain. We let the sparks fly. The benefits of operating this way are immense because we are able to tackle the elephant in the room head on, but this kind of culture is hard to build and maintain, especially as companies grow.
Fortunately, we’ve learned a few tips from working in open source communities about how to create and manage a vibrant feedback loop within our organization. Once you establish the practice of sharing regular feedback across the company, it begins to function like a flywheel. It’s hard at first to get it moving. You’ll need to do some substantial pushing and monitoring to get the wheel spinning. But before you know it, you’ll find that the wheel begins to turn all on its own using its own momentum.
We’ve found that there are three key things you need to tackle to get your feedback loop spinning; this is the foundational work that gets everyone pushing in the same direction and that creates a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable having difficult conversations. As a leader, you must role model these behaviors, and encourage them at every level of your organization:
Show appreciation. It surprises me that when people use the term “feedback,” it often comes with a negative connotation. Why can’t feedback also include positive aspects as well? A great way to start a feedback loop, therefore, is to actually begin by recognizing the good work someone has done. What we’ve learned is that one key to creating a self-sustaining feedback loop is that you need to spend much more time recognizing and appreciating someone’s efforts than you do criticizing them. At Red Hat, I’d wager the ratio is something like 9:1 (research typically suggests a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative). You’re far more likely to have someone from outside your department thank you or tell you that you did a great job than anything else — and they mean it. That’s how you can begin to establish trusting relationships that are strong enough to withstand any constructive criticism that might come along.
Open up. We all have the tendency, when we think we’re under attack, to circle the wagons and protect our department and ourselves. You can literally read someone’s body language when this is happening — they fold their arms, furrow their brows — and you can almost see the steam coming out of their ears. But if you want to build a feedback loop in your business, you, especially as a leader, need to lead by example and open yourself up to hear what people are saying. If someone in another department is convinced you’re not listening to them, what makes you think they’ll listen to anything you have to say to them? Yes, opening yourself up makes you vulnerable. But that’s also why we preach the idea that “you aren’t your code,” which is another way of saying that we all need to be able to process constructive criticism without taking it personally. If you can do that, you can create the kind of open and honest culture that is capable of tackling the thorniest of issues together. And you’ll be amazed that when you do listen to someone’s feedback, and take action on it, you’ll increase that person’s engagement level in his or her work.
Be inclusive early and often. One of the interesting complexities inside most organizations, especially larger ones, is that they establish departmental or functional “silos” for reasons of efficiencies. And yet, they inadvertently create mistrust and misinformation by doing so. It often results in an “us-versus-them” type of situation that results in a departmental blame game. That’s why a big part of building an effective feedback loop is to get people from all over the organization involved as soon as possible in your decision-making, whether you work in finance, IT, or human resources — and often. It’s far easier and effective to gather feedback from other departments on smaller incremental issues than waiting until you’re father along where the stakes and risks have increased. If you do get some constructive criticism early on, you can more easily change course while also increasing trust and buy-in from the rest of the company.
So unless you’ve got the budget to hire a consultant to do the straight talk for you, it’s time for you to lead the way by encouraging difficult conversations inside your organization. If you can tackle these three steps up front, you’ll find your feedback flywheel will begin spinning faster and faster. Otherwise, that elephant in the room is bound to trip you up sooner or later.
Jim Whitehurst is the president and CEO of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and solutions, and the author of the book The Open Organization (HBR Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter at @JWhitehurst.
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