Creating A Culture Of Communication

In my seventeen years of government employment, I encountered many bureaucratic procedures that made accomplishing anything very difficult and inefficient. Most government employees know that the agency or program they are working for could be improved but they do not have the opportunity to express their ideas or are afraid to express new ideas as most department heads do not value dissent in any way. For any type of change to occur in an organization, a culture that values opinions must be created.

As Chief Operating Officer of PayPal, David Sacks had 500 employees reporting to him. As an experienced business officer, Sacks has leadership skills that others can learn from. In a New York Times article titled Fostering a Culture of Dissent, Sacks makes the following points:

  • Open Door Policy – “Anyone can walk into my office and start talking to me.” “Anybody can ask me questions and debate me. You could be a new employee and you can start getting into a debate with me about something. The start-up culture is very democratic in general. I think you need that in order to attract good people. You’ve really got to create a company culture that people want to work at. And so you try to give them a voice, give them a sense that they influence the direction of the company, and try to avoid unnecessary process and hierarchy — things that might frustrate employees.”
  • Management By Walking Around – “I also walk around the office and just start talking to people about what they’re working on. I’m not trying to micromanage what they’re doing, but I am trying to find out what they’re working on and talk to them about it.”
  • Create A Culture Of Dissent – I think you’ve got to create a culture in which dissent is valued. And there’s probably a lot of ways to set that tone. Certainly you can tell if you’ve got a culture of dissent when you walk into a company. People can figure out very quickly whether dissent is encouraged or whether it’s actually something that’s not welcome. It’s a red flag to me if there’s just too much consensus and not enough dissent. I feel like in any human community there’s always dissent because people just disagree. Anytime there doesn’t appear to be dissent, it means that the corporate culture has just shifted way too much toward consensus. That means the leadership just doesn’t welcome dissent enough.”
  • Communication – “We do a lot of things to try and pull the company together and make sure that we’re all on the same page. So about once a quarter, I give a company presentation that lays out our thinking at a high level about the strategy. And then once a month we have Yammer Time at the end of the day on Friday, and the executive team takes questions from anyone in the company. They can also submit them online. They can also submit them anonymously if they want. We’ll basically answer anything that people want. People can see the anonymous questions online, and people can vote on which questions they want us to answer.
  • What Are We Trying To Do Here? –“We just implemented this quarterly process called Morph. So Morph stands for Mission, Objectives, Results, People, and the H is for “How,” as in, “How did you do by the end of the quarter?”Mission is just a one-sentence description of what’s your mission at the company? What do you have ownership of? And that really gets people to think about, O.K., what is my overall mission here?Objectives are the top three, maximum five, things that you want to achieve this quarter. Results are about the metrics you’re going to use to measure those objectives. How do we know if we’ve achieved them? People refers to, what changes do we need to make in the organization to achieve this? Do we need to hire people? Do we need to create new teams? Do we need to change the way that a team is defined? And then at the end of the quarter we just ask, “How’d you do?”

    I think it is helpful just to pause once a quarter and just kind of step back for a second and say, “What are we trying to do here?” You have to be centralized with respect to direction, decentralized with respect to execution.

    Why is it that the type of leadership Sacks talks about are hard to find in government; especially among County Executives, Mayors and Town Supervisors? County Executives and Mayors rarely have an open door policy, rarely communicate with front line employees about the bureaucracy of government, are uncomfortable with any type of disagreement regarding their decisions, do not like to share information and rarely ask “What are we trying to do here?”. While Sacks advocates for fostering dissent, I would be happy to at least be part of an organization that values communication and the expression of opinions.

    What do you think?

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Mark Hammer

There was a lovely summary of whistleblower protection and whistleblowing in the US federal government published last autumn by the Merit Systems Protection Board ( http://www.mspb.gov/netsearch/viewdocs.aspx?docnumber=557972&ve… ). One of the main things you draw from it is that anyone who thinks that you can stop things from going off the rails by enshrining the protection of “whistleblowers” through law and policies is seriously fooling themselves. One of the other things of note is just how much of what gets transformed into whistleblowing ends up being classified by the courts as the rsult of “debatable managerial decisions”.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think we have looked at this all wrong; through the lens of making it all turn out okay for the “good guys” when it happens, as opposed to thinking about how to make it all unnecessary in the first place. In other words, what do organizations need to do so that nobody feels like they have to blow the whistle on anything?

How DO you make whistleblowing unnecessary in the first place? By doing precisely what Paul and David Sacks suggest here. If a disclosure of wrongdoing really boils down to an employee questionning the manager’s judgment about something the manager actually has a legal right to do, then maybe the thing to be concerned about is not protecting the employee who objects after the decision is made, but engaging the employee, fully and authentically, before it is made. Recognizing, admitting, and willingly and openly correcting mistakes, flaws, etc., needs to be a part of the corporate culture, as does fully communicating (in the sense of making understandable) the rationale underlying decisions. Do that, and you will rarely, if ever, need to protect whistleblowers, waste your time and good will drafting legislation to do so, or disappoint citizens and public servants with how ineffectual the protection is.

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM

It’s been my experience that a culture minus dissent is riddled with groupthink. We have learned to mitigate groupthink by developing cross-functional teams. We also have teammates that play the devils advocate.