Handling the uncomfortable employee truths on the growth journey

All companies are on a journey.

The destination is decided by their leaders and successful companies marshal their employees to all take the journey together, each using their different skills and experiences to reach the end goal.

Employees, too, are on their own journeys, professionally and personally.

Although sometimes we would like to ignore the fact that these two worlds collide, the reality is that they do, and when they do, the situations created require managing.

In my experience, companies that outperform have employees who make strong connections between the company’s success and success in their own life journeys.

Companies are complex systems, and therefore, it is not surprising that even the smallest of spanners in the works can become larger problems due to the number of moving parts in play.

One large spanner is the people-to-people information flow.

I am not referring to emails and the mechanisms of transmitting the information, I am referring to the ‘content’.

Every company has its own way of implementing processes, mechanisms and checkpoints to measure its progress towards its destination.

Good decisions are made through the transfer of information via the communication channels they create, both formal and informal.

Company leaders who make the right decisions based on the best information they can muster have the best chance of success on most occasions.

Leaders try to make sense of multiple information flows from different channels – informal and formal, face-to-face and remote – and this can be difficult; but in my experience, doubly so if not all information is available, as the leader is ‘shielded’ from it.

Trust is an issue with a lot of businesses.

How does a leader know they are making the right decisions, based on all available information? How can a leader obtain useful feedback that is honest, transparent and rich when some information could be withheld?

Employees can withhold information for many reasons.

They may feel that it is not their place to reveal the information, or that they will be regarded as the bearer of bad news or a ‘moaner’, or that they simply do not care enough about the company.

They may not wish to get others in trouble, especially if they are superiors, due to the consequences of doing so.

Personal relationships are often disrupted if the information is revealed carelessly, enabling the source to be identified and retribution.

Some may feel that as the company journey is going so well, that the information is insignificant compared to the greater good of the progress being made.

Whatever the reason, leaders need to find ways to obtain this shielded information that are conducive to better company decision-making.

One method of revealing more information is to set up regular surgeries for employees to discuss their issues in a confidential manner.

These surgeries offer opportunities not just to release shielded information, but also to develop employees and build trust.

Less information is withheld longer term and employees can experiment with different solutions to their issues behind closed doors.

Surgeries can help in three main areas:

  1. Specific employee support. For example, a surgery facilitator’s experience is used to suggest alternative solutions, provide the benefit of experience, and add to the employee’s range of options.
  2. An employee’s problem with the business requires clarity. For example, the surgery facilitator can perhaps explain the issues in a different way, aiding understanding, thereby avoiding the employee losing face by asking others for support in an area that they perhaps thought they could manage on their own, but which has turned out to be problematic.

On many occasions, these are not the types of simple issues that can be ‘Googled’ for answers or optional solutions.

The issues need to be discussed to ensure a solution is developed from scratch, taking all the different circumstances into account – something that cannot easily be condensed into ‘keywords’.

  1. Personal issues with impact on the business. How does the employee raise an issue about pay and conditions? Or perhaps report a superior’s bad behaviour? Or report stealing?

These can be a ‘big deal’ for some employees who lack the self-confidence or experience to raise issues they have never encountered before in a professional way.

Frequently, there is no process or procedure to follow in these circumstances so extra support is needed.

For this reason, I believe that employees need access to a confidential ‘surgery’ where they can discuss their specific issues with their journey and how they relate to the overall company journey.

These sessions can be used to define the sometimes complex problem, deconstruct it into more manageable pieces, and then discuss potential sources of solutions and the ultimate solution(s) chosen to address them.

Many leaders may ask, ‘Why should I invest money in surgeries when I have a Human Resources department that conducts employee surveys, one-to-one sessions, and feedback groups?’

The answer is that whilst some HR departments are able to offer surgeries in addition to their employee engagement activities, some are not.

However approachable HR may be, many employees can sometimes feel they are part of the mechanism they avoid divulging the information to in the first place.

They may also feel that sharing the information may trigger an ‘HR solution or process’, which means a rigid formal process must be followed immediately, without the opportunity to fully deconstruct and examine the problem first to find a more flexible solution.

In addition, HR personnel might not always have the experience and skills required to tackle operational issues, and problems can involve a combination of managerial and operational elements.

I would estimate that 90 per cent of my client surgeries are attended by managers rather than operational employees.

Managers benefit from surgeries because they are often promoted due to their ability to perform operationally rather than managerially – and frequently have not been formally trained in management skills.

Many managers are reluctant to ask for help as they are new to the job. Their superiors have placed faith in them, and rather than overtly asking for help, they decide to ‘muddle through’ so as not to lose face with those who decided they were suitable for the role.

Due to the nature of the surgery, an experienced business professional with a background in questioning and helping people better define their journey problems can offer support to the employee as a critical friend before the search for a solution begins.

They can also help evaluate and suggest new solutions to try as part of the process.

It is also important for trust that the confidentiality of these sessions is absolute (except where harm to the individual or the business is likely and there is a duty of care to address these).

The employee needs to be able to properly share their perspective without fear of being ‘reported,’ or the process will not work.

No one fully ‘shares’ if they feel their inner thoughts could be shared out of context and do them harm in return. They may wish to voice/vent and share things to explain the problem to the one leading the surgery to ultimately obtain a better quality of assistance.

If things are hidden or downplayed, then a poorer result will be obtained.

People often don’t want to be labelled as troublemakers or moaners, and if these assurances are not given, this can be a barrier to addressing the root cause.

Ultimately, if leaders want better information that reveals uncomfortable truths they need to invest in surgeries.

Frequently, surgeries can stop problems before they take root, and if wisely used they add a new dimension to the information flow within a business, plugging gaps in the leader’s knowledge and allowing them to make better decisions based on a true ‘big picture’ not a shielded version of it.

If you would like additional information on how my business growth surgery may benefit your people on your unique journey, please contact me.

Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you.

John Stein, Founder of t