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Why Red Hat heaps praise on naysayers

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in Leadership Skills

Outspoken employees who complain about problems often get branded as malcontents. Even if they call attention to important failings in their organization, they tend to lose their stature with senior leaders.

But Jim Whitehurst loves naysayers. He’s CEO of Red Hat, an open-source software firm based in Raleigh, N.C.

Whitehurst, 48, likes to keep tabs on employees that he fondly labels “thermostats.” They’re constantly taking the organization’s temperature, and they earn the respect of their peers even if they toil away in support roles.

At many companies, these vocal em­­ployees lose opportunities to climb the organizational ladder because top executives deem them troublemakers or poor team players. Whitehurst rejects that view.

“You’ve got to engage those people and listen to them,” he says. “You can then make them really productive.”

What’s more, Whitehurst lavishes praise on complainers who point out valid problems. He listens to their observations rather than attempting to muzzle or dismiss them.

Some thermostat-type employees won’t necessarily thrive if they’re promoted into management. But that doesn’t stop Whitehurst from finding ways to advance their career and recognize their contribution.

At Red Hat, he has created two tracks for ambitious employees. They can follow “careers of achievement” in which they enjoy pay hikes that reflect their constructive criticism of how the organization can improve. Or they can pursue “careers of advancement” and take on higher-level managerial responsibilities that come with fancier job titles.

This frees outspoken staffers to speak up, make a positive impact and get rewarded for their behavior. If they like their current role, they can keep their job title and feel like they’re getting ahead thanks to rising pay and Whitehurst’s ­rising esteem.

— Adapted from “Red Hat CEO: Here’s how to ­create an ‘Open Organization,’” Matt Asay, www.infoworld.com.

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