August 9, 2021 7 min read
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Building a thriving culture at work is among the most challenging endeavors for modern leaders.
Despite the efforts of the c-suite and HR managers across startups and enterprises in North America, workplace psychological aggression (commonly referred to as a “toxic environment”) has been reported by 40% of the workforce over a 12-month period with 15 million workers disclosing abuse on a weekly basis.
Over the past decade consulting small and medium enterprises, I have narrowed down the reasons for escalating tension at work to a small subset of communication principles or, more specifically, the inability to give and receive feedback.
In her book, Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, Kim Scott reveals the essential principles of building a healthy business ecosystem based on honesty, trust and fact-based deductions. Having employed many of her principles in management-consulting sessions with senior leaders, here are the five main directions you should take to empower your team to speak up and leave any grudges aside for the greater good.
1. Embody radical candor in your mission statement
Candid feedback, or the art of speaking your mind in a safe environment, should be a core pillar in your organizational principles. To make it as prominent as possible, look for the most impactful places to establish this strategy across the business.
For most organizations, this is the mission statement. While regular reviews (and updates) are commonly applied every three years, shaping the culture is strategic enough to justify a few thoughts on the matter.
If your company maintains an employee handbook or a starter manual for new hires, make sure you create a separate chapter on communication and giving feedback. Your managers should be trained separately to carry the mission forward — and deviations must be reflected on during one-on-one sessions accordingly.
Once every single person is up to speed, you are on track to build the thriving culture you’re aiming for.
2. Continuously remind hires (including new ones) that honesty is the best policy
Practice makes perfect.
Back in 2012, I taught security courses for one of the largest petrol companies in the world. As a contractor for a certification authority in the security space, we were in charge of training key employees on the core principles of security in tech, along with the common attack vectors that may end up with penetration.
Once the contract was over (and not renewed), it was only a matter of time before the first major security breach occurred, tanking the stocks for two months until the crisis was averted.
The main takeaway from this exercise was clear: Even though all of us understand the core paradigms of keeping data safe, resetting passwords on a regular basis or avoiding open wireless networks when accessing secure dashboards, frequent reminders have a notable effect on keeping security top of mind and preventing most attacks from getting any closer.
Implementing a new policy — especially one around changing communicational behavior — demands the same approach. Include brief reminders during regular management meetings. Instill the policy for new hires as early as the interview cycle. Remind people of the principles during the onboarding process.
Repetition is key, and a self-directed policy will nurture in a few months’ time.
3. Showcase receiving feedback during the first two weeks
Radical candor may sound like a cliché for new hires. The overwhelming number of job descriptions online reiterate “dynamic environment,” “work-life balance” and other catchphrases that often don’t meet expectations after the honeymoon period at work is over.
One strategy that we employ for new hires is showcasing the feedback process as early as possible.
To illustrate that, pick some of your most exemplary team members who are comfortable with the policy and won’t hesitate to speak up as needed. Set up a scenario with a new hire — such as a part of the onboarding process or a weekly kick-off meeting — and challenge your colleague to speak his or her mind.
It doesn’t have to be a staged act, but once you know which button to press, it should come naturally when the feedback you receive is as candid as it gets.
Healthy organizations have different ways to deal with tough feedback. Some employ mocking, others dive into some serious jokes or laugh together when an unexpected outcome comes to life. Showcase the way your team is supposed to react and let your new hires memorize the experience.
4. Solicit feedback with quantifiable metrics
Warren Buffet famously said, “Honesty is a very expensive gift; just don’t expect it from cheap people.” Giving feedback is intimidating — especially for established introverts, recent graduates or new recruits.
We have established regular formal feedback sessions after the first two, four, five and six months an employee joins our agency. Over the course of 20-minute sessions, we ask everyone how they feel so far, what challenges have they faced and, most importantly, whether there are any unmet expectations to date.
Since vague questions are easier to dodge, we approach the process with several direct questions. Following Jack Canfield’s example from “The Success Principles(TM),” we ask team members to rank the process or a specific case from one to ten — aiming to receive an honest metric of how we’ve done. And since the usual answer is six or seven, the following question is, “What could we all do to make it a ten together?”
Explicitly asking for feedback and allowing your team members to chime in and share specific steps that would help the business is a powerful instrument in developing the thriving culture.
5. Reward the right behavior
Managing to reshape your culture to the extent of receiving critical feedback on a regular basis is great. To maintain the process, you need to reward the right behavior whenever possible.
First, make sure you are explicitly grateful after you receive tough feedback. This type of conversation is never easy, and your teammate will feel vulnerable once he or she decides to open up. It’s your duty to reassure that person that the feedback is well taken — and you will work towards a possible resolution as soon as possible.
If the suggestion is outright invalid, don’t discard it right away. Explain the possible solutions you have been trying to implement and the possible consequences you have to avoid (since you have access to the bigger picture). Sincerity through disclosing internal information will bring you closer to your team in the long run.
Whenever you can follow through and apply the type of feedback you receive, meet your colleague personally and thank him or her again. Explain how the organization has benefited after the conversation. During team meetings, try to name someone who came up and changed the course of direction thanks to speaking his or her mind.
Every bit counts. Prioritizing a healthy culture will increase the tenure rate of your staff, decrease burnout, improve personal satisfaction and build stronger bonds within the organization. Instilling radical candor across every unit and ensuring that each member feels safe enough to participate will empower you to grow a strong team that pushes the organization forward.