Polite cultures do everything but tell the truth unless it's very comfortable to do so. But being polite is a good thing, isn't it? After studying its effects in hundreds of companies, two things become clear:
Lack of truth eats profits.
How do you know if this threatens your company? Easy. Is being "nice" more important than performing? Rather than reveal the truth about a situation, do people often seek to be polite, thus avoiding the possible discomfort, anger, retribution, and other unpleasantries? Do employees hide and deny uncomfortable issues, burying them within closed groups and hoping they will go away?
But if you're not in denial, there is a way out. Performance accelerates tremendously when people move past deceptions and verbalize real concerns, which can finally be addressed and moved out of the way. Yes, initially, telling the truth will upset people and cause discomfort, but good employees love it, and it drives accountability to new levels.
The collateral damage from keeping the truth at unspeakable levels can include:
Dead weight in management prevents great people from assuming leadership and keeps mediocre performers on staff. But politeness ensures policies are in place that actually prevent marginal performers from being let go. For example, a company may require five written warnings before someone can be terminated. Or when a manager wants to fire someone and HR checks the employee's file, they find that the manager gave the employee stellar reviews. When asked why, the manager often replies, "I didn't want to hurt the employee's feelings."
Of course hurting feelings isn't polite, but neither is avoiding accountability. So look at your policies and work to create fair systems that enable you to effectively deal with the dead weight that stalls performance. Then train your managers on how to use the new policies and be authentic with their staff. Once you start removing dead weight, employees will be happier. Great people want to work with great people and to know that management notices what they contribute.
Who are the real leaders your people follow? Many programs get stalled because the managers on the organizational chart aren't the people the employees are following. That's right...people are following phantom leaders! The formal leadership declares an initiative, but the phantom leadership is whom the people really listen to.
What if you cultivated the right talent by identifying the real champions in your company—those people who can really lead? These champions don't have to be technically competent but should be able to inspire others to follow them toward where the organization wants to go. Does your company know how to select those leaders, and does it invest the time and money to train them with the appropriate leadership skills? Companies who ignore phantom leadership get nowhere fast.
One study found that more than half of employees surveyed felt they were involved with a doomed project. Sounds like a Dilbert comic, but, unfortunately, it's true. Of course there are some projects that may appear doomed but from a big-picture perspective make sense. The problem is with a culture of politeness, you'll never find out. Are you capable of uncovering the really doomed projects?
I left a hotel once and informed the desk clerk that there was a problem with the kitchen staff regarding room service. She looked shocked—not about the poor service but that I would be so impolite as to mention it. I suggested that she might want to mention it to management as I left. I knew she wouldn't. It wouldn't be polite. Does politeness stop invaluable reconnaissance of customer satisfaction data in your company? Are your employees empowered to surface customer issues without fear of retaliation or appearing rude? Do you have a system in place for dealing with customer complaints?
Weak Management Teams
How much are your executives getting sucked into operations? If the answer is "too much," then you can be sure they have a weak management team under them. Is anyone brave enough to mention this or hear it about himself or herself? Sure, getting into operations is acceptable in small companies, turnarounds, acquisitions, and emergencies, but unfortunately, executives get sucked into operations far too long; at least everyone is polite enough to not mention it.
Great leaders find the weak links in their teams and address the issues. Perhaps an employee is in the wrong job or at the wrong company. As the saying goes, you either change people or you change people.
Performance trumps politeness every time. This doesn't mean that people have to be rude. But it does mean that respectful, authentic admission of the truth should not be sacrificed because of a culture of politeness.
Winning companies have a habit of getting used to doing things differently, even if the changes are discomforting. To drive profits higher, seek to speak the unspeakable. Strive to encourage authentic and honest communication in your staff...unless, of course, it might be too impolite.
About the Authors:
Don Schmincke is the author of The Code of the Executive. He founded The SAGA Leadership Institute to help companies accelerate performance using methods which facilitate HR as a strategic resource. For more information, please call 866-LEAD-866 or visit www.sagaleadership.com.
Darryl McCormick is Senior Vice President for Human Resources and Organization Development at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, CT. He also provides services to other healthcare organizations to assist them in transforming their cultures. You can reach him at 203-425-9705.