A former CEO of mine told me a story of how one of his key people came to him years ago and said,
“I need you to know that I love this company. I love what we stand for, and I believe in what we’re doing, but I have to leave.”
Shocked, the CEO immediately started questioning the employee about his concerns. He listened with great interest to numerous complaints about poor performance, unsustainable processes, insurmountable technical hurdles, etc. In short, this employee believed the company would fail if drastic changes were not made. The CEO told me that this conversation helped launch a series of quality initiatives and process improvement projects that ultimately saved the company and turned it into what some employees now call a “well-oiled machine.” The employee who delivered this message stayed with the company, and is now an important and respected team leader.
I heard another story about a CEO that received similar, difficult feedback from employees. One of these employees was especially passionate about the company. She valued the industry in which it operated and the impact of the company’s work on their customers. She suggested many strategies to improve quality and processes and to increase the company’s overall impact and influence. Unfortunately, she expressed her ideas in ways that the rubbed the CEO the wrong way. As such, the CEO didn’t listen. As time went on, the employee’s passion slowly mutated into frustration and anger, and naturally, so did the tone and style of her delivery, thereby exacerbating the problem. Eventually, the employee rekindled her passion by taking a new position elsewhere at a much higher salary. Still, the CEO did nothing about the defective processes and poor financial performance that plagued the company, focusing instead on the former employee’s bad attitude.
We all want people on our team who are both great workers and effective communicators. Unfortunately, not everyone comes out of the gate proficient in both areas. Sometimes we find ourselves working with team members who know their stuff really well, but never developed the skills necessary to get their ideas across effectively. In those situations, we have to ask ourselves whether poor delivery makes a message any less valuable. We then need to decide what to do about it.
As leaders, we do not have the luxury of ignoring feedback just because we don’t like the way it is presented. On the contrary, an employee who tells us the things we don’t want to hear needs to be acknowledged and encouraged. Moreover, we have a responsibility to make sure that those who need coaching to become more effective communicators receive the resources they need. If we lack the necessary training expertise in-house, we need to seek help from people skilled in these areas. It may seem counter-intuitive in the moment to help an employee that we dislike, but doing so can transform a mediocre communicator into a highly valuable asset.
On the other hand, refusing to help tells employees that their opinions and insights will be overlooked, or worse, that they will be punished for their passion and desire to help.
When Dale Carnegie first started his course in public speaking, he was surprised to discover that instructing people in things like elocution and proper posture did not benefit them much. As he explored this phenomenon with his course participants, he found that their main challenges were in areas such as self-confidence and fear, especially of standing in front of an audience. After redesigning his curriculum completely to address these issues, his participants solved their real problem, namely how to be influential and persuasive in the workplace. If we can regard every under-performing employee as a hidden treasure trove of productivity, we can focus on mapping out a course that will lead to its discovery, and finding the key that will unlock his or her untapped potential.
In his novel, Under the Dome, Stephen King wrote, “A cowardly leader is the most dangerous of men.” It takes courage to listen to criticism, especially when it’s harsh, but it’s very necessary if we are to process the wisdom contained therein and turn it into something constructive. In the end, the success of our careers and our companies may depend on it. Have the courage to listen to each and every person you lead, and you will raise standards higher than you ever thought possible!