While watching launch-day footage of what seemed to be a perfect launch, NASA engineer Rodney Rocha thought he noticed a chunk of insulation foam fall off the shuttle's external tank and strike the left wing of the craft. But he couldn't be sure as the video images were too grainy and shot at a distance.
To verify if the foam caused damage, people higher up at NASA would have to request satellite photos of the shuttle's wing. So he emailed his supervisor to see if he could get help, but his supervisor thought it was unnecessary.
Discouraged, he could not resolve his concerns and felt the message was clear - engineers were not allowed to send feedback to people higher in the organization. So a week later, when senior managers in a formal meeting discussed the foam strike possibility, Rocha observed silently.
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia experienced a catastrophic reentry into Earth's atmosphere, and all seven astronauts died. A formal investigation would later conclude that a large hole in the shuttle wing occurred when a briefcase-sized piece of foam hit the wing's leading edge, causing the accident.
When Rocha was later asked about why he hadn't spoken up in the meeting, he replied, "I just couldn't do it, She (Mission Manager Linda Ham) was way up here (gestures with hand overhead), and I was way down here (gestures his hand low)."
While most situations won't turn out as catastrophic as the Columbia disaster, the principle happens all the time. Individuals closest to the action make observations and pick up on patterns, but that feedback never makes it to others higher up in the organization.
Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, writes in "The Fearless Organization" that there is an asymmetry of psychological and societal forces favoring silence over voice and self-protection over self-expression.
Individuals often don't benefit from speaking up as much as an organization would from receiving the information. And while it might look like selfishness at the surface, consider the risk involved in speaking up and putting your opinion out there.
You might offend someone with your opinion. You may threaten someone's security in their role. There is the "shoot the messenger" tendency we have when receiving bad news. While not speaking up, on the other hand, is safer, certain, and less risk of blowback.
However, having a culture of honesty and feedback - where everyone feels empowered to speak their opinion and be heard - can bring fulfillment and benefits to both individuals and organizations. Edmondson believes this can be achieved through what she calls "psychological safety."
She writes, "When people speak up, ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning and improvement, good things happen. It's not always easy or always enjoyable, but investing effort and living with the challenges pay off. Workplaces where employees know that their input is valued create new possibilities for authentic engagement and stellar performance."
Edmondson says that a growing number of studies are finding that psychological safety can exist at work. When it does, people speak up, offer ideas, report errors, and exhibit learning behavior.
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, credits the company's transition from products that would eventually lose money to the highly successful microprocessor business to employees lower in the organizational hierarchy.
They did this through smaller daily decisions and discussions while corporate leadership was stuck arguing among themselves. Grove writes; "People in the trenches are usually in touch with impending changes early. Salespeople understand shifting customer demands before management does; financial analysts are the earliest to know when the fundamentals of a business change."
In a study of 117 student project teams, Bret Bradley showed that couples who could better handle conflict and express relevant ideas, and have critical discussions out-performed teams that couldn't.
Not only do people closest to the action pick up on changing market conditions early, but more ideas can help teams figure out the right course of action. Team members can challenge and refine each other's ideas to find the best solutions. While wrong and poorly thought out thinking can misallocate limited resources and spell disaster for an organization.
Companies understand the benefits of a safe and happy work environment. But many focus on achieving harmony (or at least in appearance) to improve their work culture. But the result is that the culture of most organizations is not conducive to creating an environment where people can speak freely.
Former Harvard Professor Chris Argyris uses what he calls "skilled incompetence" to explain the problem. Skilled incompetence is where people can be so good at a practiced behavior that they become incompetent at something they don't intend. So, for example, if people are good at avoiding conflict or not upsetting people, a byproduct is they don't say what they mean and therefore can't test basic assumptions.
This creates a culture of weak egos that can't handle straight talk. The result is people spend their effort trying to look good and hide mistakes or weaknesses. They only give opinions about what they already know is acceptable, which keeps them from putting their actual views or thoughts out there.
Learning involves moving into unknown territory and using trial and error to figure things out. When individuals or organizations build up defensive routines to avoid embarrassment or threat, it prevents us from learning.
These routines also keep us from interacting with each other genuinely and authentically, which decreases trust. Argyris believes that we can't build on our appreciation of others without first overcoming our suspicions of each other. But to overcome our suspicions we have to discuss them. To achieve this, we need practice.
John Shook, who helped oversee a famous GM factory turnaround says; "Those of us trying to change our organizations' culture need to define the things we want to do, the ways we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors. The culture will change as a result." So if organizations want to recognize the benefits of real feedback, they have to institutionalize it.
Practicing Candor and Feedback
Ed Catmull, the former CEO of Pixar, recognizes the benefits of candor saying, "A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments."
He recognizes that it is difficult for many people to speak with candor and believes it needs to be institutionalized into daily work routines. To institutionalize this behavior, he and his team developed the Braintrust.
The Braintrust is a group of people to whom the director will show their movie frequently throughout production. Its objective - "Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems and encourage them to be candid with one another."
People who participate in these meetings are required to give feedback. However, understanding that people's natural inclinations are to hold back and be polite, Pixar's leadership sits in on meetings to ensure people speak as truthfully as possible and offer notes in service of a common goal - make the best film possible.
Practices of offering candid feedback have also helped Netflix become the world's largest streaming service. They have a dedication to candor that can make some uncomfortable. Erin Meyer, co-writer of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, experienced this first hand during a keynote presentation she was giving to Netflix employees from all over the globe.
During a break, an American woman approached her to give feedback on her presentation, commenting;
"I was just saying to my colleagues that the way you are facilitating the discussion from the stage is undermining your message about cultural diversity when you ask for comments and call on the first person who raises their hand, you're setting just the type of trap your books tells use to avoid because only Americans raise their hands. So only Americans get the chance to speak."
Meyer was taken aback. It wasn't easy to swallow, especially when she realized the woman was right. But she was able to make adjustments and improve her presentation. At that moment, she recognized that while hard to hear, it works.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings believes in institutionalizing people giving selfless candor, which is "saying what you think, with positive intent." In their minds, people are hired for their opinions, not just to execute orders.
To get people comfortable with feedback, Netflix has its employees send out public memos explaining any big decisions they are about to make so people can reply with feedback. In addition, they have their employees "farm for dissent" on more minor decisions, which expects them to speak to their colleagues seeking information that pokes holes in their decision.
Most companies use formal feedback to improve employee performance. Typically, this is from supervisor to employee, but Netflix works hard to get people to continually give constructive feedback up, down, and across the organization.
For formal feedback at Netflix, anyone can give 360 written input to any given employee. They also practice this with live feedback a few times a year. To avoid people being too polite, they expect this feedback to be around 25% positive and 75% developmental.
Practicing Radical Transparency
While Netflix's culture of candor can be considered extreme to some, Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, takes it a few steps further. Ray Dalio, CEO of Bridgewater, institutionalized what he calls "radical transparency." Just like the name indicates, it's extreme dedication to truth and openness.
Former FBI Director James Comey and former Bridgwater employee give a picture of their culture;
I had a uniquely Bridgewater moment when I had been here about a month. I was talking to somebody in the organization—he was probably about twenty-five years old—and I was interviewing him about some subject, and when I finished interviewing him, he said, “Can I ask you something?” I said, “Sure,” and he said, “I heard you say something in a meeting a couple weeks ago that didn’t make any sense to me. It seemed illogical. Can I ask you why you said that?”
And my initial reaction was, “Wh—what? You, kid, are asking me that question?” And then I realized, I’m at Bridgewater. That is something that would not happen anywhere else. I mean, I was the deputy attorney general of the United States, I was the general counsel of a huge, huge company. No twenty-five-year-old is gonna ask me a question about my logic. That’s what makes this place so great. Because my logic is often flawed. But no one’s gonna tell you that, at the other places I’ve worked. Here they’re gonna tell you that. It’s not an act of courage—right?—it’s an obligation. We hire him, he promises to ask those questions…
We have a term here called “probing”—that’s what we mean by questioning each other; and I have been probed, in this strange field trip of a life that I’ve had, in a lot of different places. I’ve testified in court, I have briefed the president of the United States repeatedly, I’ve argued in front of the United States Supreme Court, and I’ve been probed at Bridgewater, and Bridgewater is by far the hardest . . .
If you say something stupid to the president of the United States, he may backhand you and say, “That’s a dumb answer,” but he doesn’t want to know [as people do at Bridgewater], “Why did you say that? And what does that tell me about the way in which you’re approaching your work, and what does it tell me about you?”
For people to find the truth when handling other people's money, they practice learning the truth about themselves. They have woven this concept into every task needed to complete their work.
Bridgewater uses what they call a "Dot Collector." An app where people share continuous streams of feedback about each other's behavior. People record their assessments of any other person by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down as well as candid, specific comments about a person's actions or inaction. The company aggregates these data points to a larger crowd-sourced pattern that gives them a picture of someone over time. Using this data, anyone can identify what development work they need to improve.
Bridgewater doesn't just give feedback frequently; they provide feedback on how each person correctly identifies, communicates, and receives feedback about the problem. Whenever a problem arises, they use an Issue Log where people record a candid assessment of an individual's contributions to the situation alongside their strengths and weaknesses. This log helps the company learn from their mistakes, but this assessment is public so that everyone can critique these responses to make sure people are recording accurately and correctly.
Bridgewater uses all this public information and feedback to fill out a "baseball card," which, similar to an actual baseball card, will have each person's stats, including Dalio. This profile includes what a person is like, testimonials, feedback dots, personality assessments, surveys of good and bad people, etc. Using radical transparency and sometimes painful dedication to the truth is the ultimate tool that reveals everything the company and person need to know to improve.
Edgar Schein, former professor of MIT Sloan School of Management, has written many books on cultural change. He believes that leaders have to design systems, procedures, and reinforcement mechanisms to provide structural support to change behavior. If leaders don't, they will unknowingly contradict their message.
Most organizations want their teams to speak openly and receive the benefits that feedback can provide. But they have to install systems that, in a lot of ways, go against our nature. These processes have to be built into the fabric of daily interactions to ensure people are getting the necessary practice to become more comfortable giving and receiving feedback.
- The Fearless Organization by Any C. Edmondson
- Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company by Andy Grove
- Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: the critical role of team psychological safety climate by Bret H Bradley, Bennett E Postlethwaite, Anthony C Klotz, Maria R Hamdani, Kenneth G Brown
- Skilled Incompetence by Chris Argyris
- No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
- How to Change a Culture: Lessons From NUMMI by John Shook
- An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
- Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
- Organizational Culture and Leadership - Edgar Schein
- The Corporate Culture Survival Guide - Edgar Schein