Avoid Artificial Harmony by Embracing a Transparent Culture
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 18 of 24 -
In the quest for alignment leaders must ensure that they don’t create a culture of artificial harmony but rather one of transparency. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz stated, “I think the currency of leadership is transparency.” Indeed, without transparency a culture of distrust and artificial harmony forms. Consequently, a culture where artificial harmony trumps transparency may look fine on the surface but underneath looms a dangerous shark tank. Indeed, and as Edwin Land stated, “Politeness (i.e., artificial harmony) is the poison of collaboration.” Simply, one cannot lead unless they are trusted and one cannot enable action without inspiring. However, one cannot be trusted or inspire without first being transparent. As such, transparency is indeed the gateway to leadership success. Accordingly, to transition from artificial harmony to one of transparency leaders can follow three steps, specifically:
- Create a culture of "why" versus "yes" people
- Transition from a command and follow approach to a listen and inspire model via two-way instead of one-way communication
- Engage detractors and leverage promoters
Build a Culture of Transparency by creating "why" versus "yes" People
The first step to leading with transparency is to build a culture where there is an obligation to respectfully dissent by creating a climate where honesty is valued and honored. Simply, a culture that creates "why" versus "yes" people is vital. Indeed, a culture that promotes “yes people” drives value destruction – in large part because transparency was shut out in favor of artificial harmony. Instead, encouraging people to “ask why” by having a platform to challenge the status quo ensures mitigation of groupthink and unlocks innovation and growth. If people don’t feel free and empowered to speak freely bad things can and will happen. The employees, not the C-Suite executives, have the greatest pulse of the customers and business. By shackling employees with fear of speaking or asking "why" the enterprise misses out on its greatest source of insight. Simply, leaders must not let the preservation of artificial harmony trump the importance of an open, transparent culture where everyone has a voice to respectfully dissent.
An interesting analogy can help shed further light on this topic. Several scientists performed an experiment in which five monkeys were placed in a cage with several great looking bananas hanging directly overhead yet slightly out of reach. A stepladder was added to the cage and almost immediately, Monkey #1 started climbing up the ladder with great enthusiasm. With the banana nearly in hand the scientists sprayed ice cold water on all the monkeys. Monkey #1 immediately came running down the ladder with no banana in hand. This process continued. Whenever a monkey attempted to climb the ladder and retrieve the banana all five monkeys were sprayed with cold water. After several attempts no monkey dared climb the ladder again. No water was needed. The fear alone that something bad would transpire was enough to keep all five monkeys complacent. The scientists then decided to replace Monkey #1 with a brand new monkey – one that had never experienced the ice water treatment. Almost immediately, this new monkey saw the delicious looking bananas overhead and attempted to climb the ladder. However, before he got up to the second step he was attacked by the other four monkeys who had previously experienced the ice water treatment. Over time, one by one each monkey was replaced. Eventually all five monkeys in the cage had never experienced the ice water treatment but along the way the environment (culture) perpetuated a myth that reaching for the banana was not tolerated and as such, off limits. Unfortunately, they were protecting a faulty rule, a toxic culture, and a value destructive way of life all without even knowing why. Simply, lack of transparency from a toxic culture and fear of change is slowly built but once embedded it is challenging to change.
Consequently, organizational inertia is tough to overcome in large part because employees are punished for asking “why” instead of encouraged to “ask why” via challenging the status quo. A response of “this is how we’ve always done it” is unacceptable and will eventually be the demise of a company just as those five monkeys will eventually starve themselves to death before being willing to change and climb that ladder. Simply, if leaders want “yes people” that is the beginning of the end. Instead leaders must be inclusive, ensuring mitigation of groupthink by building a culture of people that ask "why." Simply, transparency is about ensuring an openness to a diverse set of opinions, thoughts, and experiences. Remember, leaders must create a culture where people feel comfortable asking “why” and not punished for asking the company to think beyond its current boundaries. As Bernard Baruch stated, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.” As such, the path to value unlocking transparency begins by building a culture that creates “why” instead of “yes” people.
Think Culture is Just a Buzzword? Think Again
Culture is the greatest yet most ignored profit generating engine. Unfortunately, a company’s culture is often collecting dust in employees' desks because without psychological ownership these words never drive change. Read More →
Ensure Distinctive Two-Way Communication by Transitioning from a Command & Follow Approach to a Listen & Inspire Model
Leading with transparency is not simply ensuring one-way, transparent communication but perhaps more importantly ensuring a platform for two-way, transparent communication. Regarding outbound communication, leaders must ensure their interaction drives ownership not merely artificial alignment. Unfortunately, many leaders often make the mistake of believing that others see the vision and are completely aligned. However, oftentimes merely a superficial alignment has transpired with little to no ownership. BCG has found that it can take up to nine conversations to ensure key change messages really stick. This is likely three times as much as most leaders would feel comfortable performing but it’s vital to enterprise success. Simply, outbound communication should be transparent, concise, simple, and frequent while also soliciting inbound input and feedback to ensure ownership not merely alignment. This ensures valuable insights are not missed while also keeping a pulse on your employees. Otherwise artificial harmony and "yes" people are created instead of true ownership and action.
Furthermore, if you’re only communicating by speaking versus listening you’re actually commanding, not communicating. As Jim Collins found, “Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and brutal facts confronted. There’s a huge difference between the opportunity to ‘have your say’ and the opportunity to be heard.” Simply, a lack of transparency often transpires because leaders take a one way approach to communication. Simply, a monologue and command approach versus a listen, engage, and communicate approach is perpetuated. Remember, a great leader doesn't create followers but instead creates other leaders. As such, there are two ways of exerting one’s leadership strength. One is pushing down via a command and follow mentality (one-way communication). The other is pulling up by focusing on inspiring instead of commanding action (two-way communication). This happens by creating a transparent culture of two-way communication - one of listening and learning as much as speaking and telling. As former CEO of Baxter International Harry Kraemer noted, “if you listen to people and engage in a dialogue rather than generating a monologue, not only will you learn a lot but you’ll also create a setting where great ideas can bubble to the surface and get acted on.” Simply, leading with transparency is as much about ensuring excellent outbound communication as it is about encouraging and soliciting frequent inbound communication. Otherwise, one is commanding not communicating, inhibiting instead of enabling, and discouraging instead of inspiring.
Engage Detractors & Leverage Promoters
After creating the right culture, one of transparency where groupthink is frowned upon, leaders must also engage their detractors and leverage their supporters. However, in most enterprises, influential supporters are underleveraged and skeptics are at best under engaged and more often than not completely shut out. In large part this transpires because a transparent culture has not been created. Remember, influence doesn’t always correlate with the title of one’s job. Some of the greatest influencers across the world’s most admired companies don’t have lofty, executive titles but still carry significant weight and influencer status. Simply, never assume title equals influence. Accordingly, influencers should be leveraged and naysayers should be heard. Thus, in an era of always on transformation where change is the new normal, leaders must identify employees whose enthusiasm would be critical to the success of the effort by creating an influencer matrix— a simple tool that measures two vital dimensions, specifically: (1) the level of individual employee support for the change effort and (2) the degree of their influence in the organization.
Simply, there are two groups that must be leveraged. Firstly, those that wield high influence and strongly support the current change and path forward. Secondly, those that carry high influence but do not support the path forward. Accordingly, visionary leaders must arm influential supporters with the tools, messages, and information needed to be successful change agents. On the other hand, those with high influence but little support for the path forward should also be engaged. Remember, never shut out the naysayers as they may have valuable insight. At the very least, even if they don’t agree, as long as they feel their words were respectfully heard and heeded they will have a much higher chance of being a promoter rather than a detractor. On the other hand, by not engaging with those who are opposed to change bad situations can quickly escalate as it only takes one bad apple to breed contempt and a toxic culture. Ultimately, candor and transparency are key, especially with those that carry high enterprise influence. Occasionally tough human capital moves may be necessary but at the very least an influencers matrix ensures leaders are engaged and transparent with two of their largest, internal change agents.
One cannot lead unless they are trusted and one cannot enable action without inspiring. However, one cannot be trusted or inspire without first being transparent. As such, transparency is perhaps the greatest tool leaders can leverage in driving inspiration, trust, and growth. Accordingly, leaders can drive transparency via:
- Creating a culture of "why" versus "yes" people
- Transitioning from a command and follow approach to a listen and inspire model via two-way instead of one-way communication
- Engaging detractors and leverage promoters
Ultimately, true self-confidence enables leaders to be transparent and empower their team with no concern for those that openly express their views. Indeed, there is an embracement for open, constructive, and ideological conflict. Artificial harmony is despised by true leaders, meaning transparency is not a buzzword used in town hall meetings to momentarily appease. Instead, transparency is embraced by leadership and pushed down to the front-line, ensuring this concept is a lived and breathed component of the enterprise. Remember, leaders must not let the preservation of artificial harmony trump the importance of an open, transparent culture where everyone has a voice to respectfully dissent. Indeed, transparency is the gateway for trust, change, and innovation – key pillars for profitable growth.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 18 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
- INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
- EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
- INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.