If You Sit On A Powder Keg – Don’t Smoke

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

Ignorance is not bliss - how to avoid major problems in your business.

When is it unwise to assume that no news is good news? When you are in charge of a company or any part of one. The business community is littered with the ashes of firms and their management who allowed their organizations to crash and bum because they didn't know what was going on. Any manager who isn't finding out about employee, customer or supplier problems is living on borrowed time. Issues do not simply go away or decrease in importance. They smolder and eventually burst into flames.

Effective managers know how to run their organizations. But they must have valid information upon which to base their decisions and actions. Not knowing what is going on or having incorrect information is as dangerous as holding a torch while as sitting on a powder keg. It's only a matter of time before it blows up. Let me give you a case in point. One president we know thought he had a plan for getting closer to his employees and increasing morale while keeping his ear to the ground. He instituted a "Coffee with the Boss" program and sat down twice a week with a group of employees. In order to avoid any suggestion of bias, he asked the union to select the participants. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until a wildcat strike took place. What he didn't know was that the participants had been carefully coached and instructed to tell him what they wanted him to hear. He was getting information all right, but it was useless.

Eventually the strike ended and so did the Coffee with the Boss program. However, this president was astute. He realized the importance of reliable information and took steps to ensure that he got it. For the past dozen years his employees have been involved in anonymous employee surveys. Everyone is free to say what they think without fear of reprisal, all of the results including the good, the bad and the ugly are shared with everyone and managers are charged with the responsibility of addressing the issues that are raised.

Has this paid off? Handsomely! There has never been another strike, employee relations have steadily improved, customer service is at an all time high, as is worker commitment, and pride in the firm. In addition, the employees have pointed out ways to reduce shrinkage, improve morale and ease internal tensions. Getting the information was the first step and acting on it according was next. This firm did an outstanding job with both.

Albert Einstein used to say that finding a solution to a problem was easy. The hard part was identifying the problem. Most managers could fix problems if they only knew what they were and what had caused them. The trick is finding and diagnosing them. This is where surveys can help. A properly designed survey will uncover hidden problems, determine their origin and enable you to assess their importance. But don't undertake a survey unless you are committed to sharing the results and you must share all of them. Failure to do so generates distrust and the suspicion that you are hiding something. Combining disclosure with a plan to address some of the issues makes people feel that they have been heard and that something will happen as a result. This is the whole idea behind a survey anyway, so why not share it with everyone.

Employees aren't the only ones who want to be heard. Suppliers also have concerns but few firms take the time to listen to them. Doing so can pay big dividends. Then there are the customers. Even though they are critical to success, they are often ignored. Firms who take the time to find and respond to customer needs are invariably successful.

Managers who don't know about problems before they become crises never have a chance to do more than damage control. If they chastise their subordinates for not knowing more, the latter are even more likely to cover up problems in the hope of staying out of trouble. But the problems always surface eventually. The only way to break this cycle is to get accurate information before the powder keg goes up. Surveys are effective, fast and low cost tools that every firm needs to use. Managers, who aren't using them, aren't doing their jobs.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.