Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell, Authors, The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook

A common dilemma for many CEOs is whether their team members and the firm’s associates are giving them honest feedback or merely telling them what they want to hear. Are major problems being covered up? Are major problems being solved without making the CEO aware that there was a problem? Are major problems being brought to his attention, and if not, why not?

Masking or hiding issues from a leader can be the cause of embarrassment for her at the very least, or result in a major conflict. Yes, associates should be empowered to take on tough issues and solve them on their own, but they should also be held accountable for letting the leaders know what’s going on. The best way to avoid this dilemma – foster a culture of open communication. In organizations where the leadership is courageous, it’s not unusual to have a “speak-up” culture where everyone embraces accountability – holding themselves and each other accountable for actions or inactions that are counterproductive to the team and the organization.

Consider the CEO who is very approachable. He walks around, talks with people in all departments and asks “What can I do better?” He’s vulnerable and invites feedback. He expects that his leadership team do the same. There are no formal 360 evaluations. Rather there is honest feedback and dialogue that is listened to and acted upon.

How does this CEO foster courageous leadership in his organization? First, and most importantly, he builds trust. One way he accomplishes this is to take the feedback he receives seriously. If it’s something that can be acted upon, he does so quickly. If a team member makes a suggestion that can’t be implemented, he’ll explain why. He never dismisses suggestions nor makes other people feel vulnerable.

He also communicates early and often. He lets people know what their roles entail, how each role supports the organization’s goals and values, what successful performance looks like including outputs and results, and how successful performance positively impacts the organization.

This CEO’s communication style is direct. When he discusses expectations, he describes exactly what needs to happen and why. “Our goal is to increase sales by 30% in the coming fiscal year with 15% coming from existing markets and an additional 15% from new markets. Sales will have to work closely with marketing to develop a plan for expansion. That plan must be in place 45 days before the fiscal year begins.” His expectations are precise and realistic. The deadline is clear and the actions are essential and manageable. People know where they stand and what they have to do.

When expectations are clear, the likelihood of conflict arising diminishes. Rather than waste time and energy being confused and frustrated, employees have a clear path to follow. They know that they can and are expected to bring unforeseen issues to anyone in management as early as possible so adjustments can be made. Embedded in the organization’s values are trust and respect for all. They achieve this by expecting active employee participation in issues, mutual problem solving and goal setting, and transparency. People are not afraid to engage in dialogue, question goals, tasks or expectations, nor ask for clarification.

Our CEO’s open attitude fosters an environment of continued improvement for the employees and for the organization. An open culture that encourages feedback and accountability will engage, motivate and retain good talent – a goal every organization should strive to achieve.

About the Authors

Barbara Mitchell is an author, speaker, human resources consultant, and coauthor of The Big Book of HR and The Essential HR Handbook. Most of her HR career was spent with Marriott International. She is now managing partner of The Mitchell Group, helping clients successfully hire, develop, engage, and retain the best talent available.

Cornelia Gamlem, SPHR, is president of The GEMS Group Ltd., consults, speaks, and writes on human resource and management issues. A recognized expert in employee relations and human resources, she coauthored The Big Book of HR and Roadmap to Success: 5 Steps to Putting Action Into Your Affirmative Action Plan.


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