To initiate a conversation that matters, make sure it covers these bases:
- It’s about the most important things. Don’t skirt the real issues.
- It’s public and collective. That is, “public” within the organization and “collective” across levels and functions.
- Employees can be honest without risking their jobs. This is a much bigger problem than leaders realize. Over and over, leaders say they want to know what employees really think, then punish them for telling.
- It must be structured. You need to allow even the quietest, most frightened and cynical employees to be heard. Divide people into task forces, and let them each appoint a leader who will convey problems without identifying their sources. The group leader becomes the messenger, and the ironclad rule is “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
- It needs to toggle between questions and advocacy. You need both probing questions and a point of view about the organization’s values and direction.
On another day, reconvene your top leaders to figure out a strategy. Communicate it clearly. Then, carry it out.
Mattel Canada used this process and uncovered conflicts between sales and operations. The solutions it set in motion helped move it from last to first in profitability among Mattel’s international subsidiaries.
— Adapted from “How to Have an Honest Conversation About Your Business Strategy,” Michael Beer and Russell A. Eisenstat, Harvard Business Review.