Silence is a Killer

Recently, I had the pleasure hearing of Former Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Bill Owens speak to a small group of executives.   Coming up the ranks from a nuclear submariner, Owens recalled a conversation he had with one of his most trusted advisors when he first made the upper echelons of the military.   You’ll never dine better and you’ll never be farther than the truth! said his trusted friend.

For many senior executives, the walls of the largest company can become very small. CEOs and business leaders are falling victim to getting filtered information and not getting the raw truth despite a desperate need for real-time information to make decisions and steer the organization in the right direction.   We live in a world of violent politeness because very few people are willing to deliver raw feedback, opinions, and ideas or create a healthy conflict.

What we are seeing are executives that are essentially operating in a “protective bubble” because the people around them feel that it is their job to protect both the executive and themselves.   But in essence, that ‘inner-circle’ that surrounds them achieves the exact opposite. It puts leaders at greater risk because they don’t get the information they need fast enough to make decisions and when they do, it’s been filtered and sanitized. It puts the entire organization at risk as critical decisions get delayed while being put through the process of making it to the decision maker.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management have a theory is that “flattery and opinion conformity” make leaders overconfident, resulting in “biased strategic decision making” and an overall disconnect from the execution on the ground.


A recent example to hit the news was GM’s CEO Mary Barra who upon taking the helm of the automaker had to defend a long-running ignition switch defect, going back to 2002, which is now linked to at least 13 deaths. For years, individuals and leaders failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by the faulty ignition switch. Barra was stumped as to why engineers and others largely failed to communicate a problem that would have cost 57 cents to repair.

When Alan Mulally took over Ford Motor Company in the midst of declining profitability, he asked all division managers at Ford to evaluate the results of their own division’s operations.   They were supposed to color-code operational reports with either green, indicating favorable results, yellow indicating caution or red indicating issues or trouble.   At the first few meetings, Mulally noticed that the division managers had a tendency to color everything green, despite successive years of multi-billion dollar losses. Finally, with some encouragement, Mark Fields, leader of the Americas business went first. He admitted that the Ford Edge, due to arrive at dealers, had some technical problems and wasn’t ready for the start of production. “The whole place was deathly silent,” says Mulally. “Then I clapped, and I said, ‘Mark, I really appreciate that clear visibility.’ And the next week the entire set of charts were all rainbows.”

Douglas Conant, the former CEO of Campbell’s soup who is credited with the cultural turnaround of the company took over as the president and CEO in 2001 when the company’s stock was falling steeply. As a way to help him stay informed with what was happening throughout the company, Conant wore a pedometer on his belt, and sometime during each day–whether at the headquarters building in New Jersey or at a production plant in Europe or Asia, he put on a pair of walking shoes. His goal was to log 10,000 steps a day to interact meaningfully with as many employees as possible.

As a leader, your job is to encourage others around you to be open and honest without consequence, rather a reward. Here are a few practical ideas and ways to ensure you don’t end up in a bubble:

Be mindful of who you surround yourself with

Leaders who surround themselves with yes-(wo)men or taskmasters that engage in groupthink are more likely to maintain the status quo and implement or stick with ill-conceived strategies. Great leaders know to surround themselves with the best and brightest talent they can find: Folks who will tell it like it is and do what’s right for the company, no matter what.

Another thing to keep in mind is complacency.   Just because you’ve had the same inner circle for a number of years (and it feels so comfortable), doesn’t mean you don’t need to change it up.   Always seek new talent to surround yourself with and offer a fresh perspective.

Make asking for feedback a habit

There is a strong correlation between asking for feedback and leadership effectiveness. In a recent study of 51,896 executives, those who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback (that is to say, they asked for feedback less often than fully 90% of their peers) were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.   Feedback needs to be diverse and a dialogue rather than a survey.

Seek external leaders who you can connect with and learn from

Within the walls of an organization, there will always be agendas and bureaucracy that limit who you can talk to and how honest you could really be with them (and vice-versa).   Alternatively, having a small and trusted network of professionals outside of your organization who you can confide in and get raw and unfiltered feedback is always a great way to ensure you are getting unbiased opinions and advice.

Encourage and Reward people to gain candid feedback

Employees might be a little intimidated about taking the gloves off and dishing it out. Following the footsteps of Mulally and Conant, encouraging open and honest feedback is not a one-time activity and takes a tremendous amount of re-enforcement. Communications expert Scott Berkun emphasizes listening and empathy as key ways to encourage candid feedback. “If you really want feedback you have to be prepared to shut up and listen.” Qualifying or clarifying questions are okay, but don’t act offended. And at the end, be sure to offer sincere thanks.

Walk Around

I almost didn’t include this one since it is such common sense.   However, we live in busy times and it’s easy to get caught up between the busyness of work and life that we sometimes forget that talking directly to people is the best source to get insights. As a leader, it is likely the wisest use of your time to spend time talking to employees, customers and partners to get a real sense of what’s going on and build trust and openness at the same time.

In a day and age where change is a constant, the way leaders turn information into meaning is going to be a crucial step for success. With some simple tactics and self-reflection, leaders can step out of the bubble and avoid the silence that can be a killer.




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