Ending Silence

Breaking through the #1 Barrier to Cultural Change

We are a “now” society, thanks to technology and apps that make us super efficient. The downside is that we are less patient, which can be a stumbling block in overcoming business challenges that require long-term solutions. One example near and dear to Hillary’s is transforming corporate culture. Unrealistic expectations about time and commitment can tempt organizations to leap over essential steps and totally undermine the process.

Step One: See Your Company through Your Employees’ Eyes

Our client, a 50-year-old mid-market manufacturing company that has grown dramatically over the last 10 years, enlisted our help in closing cultural gaps resulting from acquisitions that made it a larger and global organization. Like many companies that experience accelerated growth, culture took a back seat as it focused on merging core competencies.

To determine what areas we needed to focus on, our first step was to understand employees’ beliefs, wants and needs. Making assumptions/guessing is no substitution for knowing what’s really on employees’ minds and in their hearts. So we guided our client through an employee engagement assessment late last year.

Step Two: Establish Goals Based on Employees’ Views

After analyzing assessment data, we established the following near-term goals for reshaping the corporate culture:

  • Rethink communication practices with key objectives to break down the silos that have been created between departments and business units, and recapture the feeling of workplace as a “family”. 
  • Rethink the almost non-existent recognition practices to promote camaraderie and the right actions that enhance productivity. We all know the old saying, “What gets recognized gets repeated.”
  • Rethink accountability, establish meaningful measurements, and checks and balances for all to own their work.  

Step Three: Translate Goals into Actions

Since January, we have been facilitating group meetings with all of the company’s nearly 40 managers (monthly) and company-wide meetings with 250 people (quarterly).

Goal of 90-minute monthly managers meetings:

    • Provide “managers” development training – helping them grow in some way since many were promoted to manager from the role they previously served in. While they are technically competent to oversee, train and develop their direct reports, they are not always practiced in people management with regard to:
      • Cascading messages from their superiors to their reports
      • Expressing recognition
      • Implementing accountability
  • Provide managers new company information such as new account/work, new compliance issues to be introduced and built into business processes, and new company-wide initiatives to be launched.
  • Financials: within the four business units who is meeting the business plan, below plan or exceeding plan and how does each of these contribute to overall company success/failure.

Goal of 30-minute quarterly all-employee meetings:

  • Welcome new people to the company (with picture, title, location and business unit);
  • Acknowledge service recognition (years of service, role, and CEO’s personal statement about contributions they’ve made or what they may be known for in the company);
  • Announce company happenings, giving senior leaders the opportunity to reinforce information that managers likely heard since the last quarterly meeting and should have cascaded out;
  • High level financials for the company.

Breaking the Silence Barrier

It was apparent at our earliest meetings that silence would be public enemy number one in our plan to create change. It was a challenge getting people to open up. When questions were posed and new ideas shared, there was a gaping lack of response.

It’s risky to assume there is total agreement for a plan or proposal that is mostly met with silence. I quickly learned that not everyone was willing to offer their thoughts in a public setting, especially if they are not in agreement with senior colleagues.

To change the tenor from silence to participation, we knew some heavy lifting needed to be done, starting with introducing the concept “Silence = Agreement”.  However, our explanation that not saying anything indicates approval had them squirming uncomfortably in their chairs. In order to be effective, the concept was unequivocally enforced. When reservations were expressed later, the response was, “You should have spoken up at the meeting. We’ve moved on, but your opinion is valuable so I hope you’ll voice an opinion next time.”

Next we found ways to encourage them to end the silence. First, to make it easier for people to open up, all meeting participants received an outline of topics in advance of meeting. They began to feel more prepared and secure about participating. Some additional ways to foster discussion are:

  • Opportunities to participate anonymously

Some people are more willing to share anonymously. Have participants jot down questions and concerns and submit them in a box or a bowl. Read them to the group. There are polling apps that could provide anonymous responses in real time.

  • Diagram it

List the components of a plan or proposal on a wall chart, and have participants place green dots where they agree, yellow dots where they have a question, and red dots where they have a significant concern. The dots break the ice and start a conversation.

  • Downsize it

People are more likely to participate in smaller group discussions, so divide people into teams to discuss questions/challenges. Appoint a representative from each group to summarize the group’s thoughts.

  • De-personalize it

When acting on behalf of others, people seem more willing to speak. A question like, “What objections or concerns might your direct reports have?” can open up a dialog, because it shifts criticism. It’s not what they don’t like. It’s what they think their reports or colleagues won’t like.

Getting people to open up can be challenging if they aren’t used to being asked to express their views or when they are asked, they do not feel heard. Creating an environment that makes them feel comfortable and safe to participate is critical. Once that’s achieved, it becomes a key component of the corporate culture.

If you’re looking for help in shaping communication practices that keep your company tightly connected and engaged, call us. We’re experienced engagement builders.

Toll free: 800-742- 6800 In Minneapolis/St. Paul: 952-933- 8365 email: Hillary@askhillarys.com