Companies are surprisingly similar in what they claim to be their values, culture and execution, but there is a lot more variation in what actually happens at the coalface. Leaders have a crucial role in determining how well their organisations ‘walk the talk’ through their own conduct and the way they respond to others.
Most leaders would say their actions reflect their organisations’ values, and genuinely believe it. But many have a blind spot in their self-assessment. When it comes to judging your performance, personal reflection isn’t enough; only candid feedback from others can reveal the impact of your actions. The drive and optimism that leads to a person’s success, however, can sometimes make them disinclined to hear bad news about themselves or their endeavours.
It’s a natural first response to engage with supporters and ignore those who convey criticism or resistance. But it is vital that leaders can override their initial avoidance and irritation when confronted by negative views and genuinely seek to understand what is being said.
A wise CEO once explained this to me as his ‘dead fish’ metaphor. As he said, a dead fish on the table is unpleasant but it can be dealt with. A dead fish that remains under the table only gets worse over time, until no-one can go anywhere near it
Failure to address problems or resistance does not cause them to disappear, they just go underground. A wise CEO once explained this to me as his ‘dead fish’ metaphor. As he said, a dead fish on the table is unpleasant but it can be dealt with. A dead fish that remains under the table only gets worse over time, until no-one can go anywhere near it.
Honesty is the best policy
A leader’s appetite for the truth has a strong impact on an organisation’s culture for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates the extent to which values such as honesty and integrity are genuinely important, and secondly it provides knowledge about the level of staff engagement with the organisation’s goals.
To use the metaphor of car travel, very few people would choose not to be informed about a problem which could prevent them from arriving at their destination. However, leaders who do not seek to understand resistance or negative feedback are doing this.
While most people fear the criticism that may come with honest feedback, it can also highlight positive aspects of leadership which leaders themselves may not have recognised as significant. Candid feedback is a road map showing leaders what to do more of – and less of – to achieve goals and create a healthy culture.
To establish whether honesty is valued and forthright dialogue is encouraged, the question every CEO should ask is not ‘Do I encourage the team to express their views candidly?’, but ‘How do I respond to criticism?’