Behind Closed Doors

Being too selective with your communication is a surefire way to blow your trust out of the water, slow important stuff down and piss your employees right off. We talk a lot about openness and we often don’t see the behaviour to back it up. Let me give you an example.

During my time in BT Global Services we went through a very difficult period and a new CEO was appointed from within the company to lead some necessary change. He spoke about how things were going to be different, said we needed to trust each other and used words like open and honest, and we were invited to contribute our ideas and thoughts on how we might work differently.

What followed were periods of silence from the top, they felt like forever though in reality were probably only a couple of weeks or so at a time. When folks know change is coming – they don’t like silence and soon, stories and half truths begin to walk the corridors like wraiths in a dodgy horror movie.

The silence was punctuated by updates via conference call and webinar, and huge, dull, uninformative PowerPoint decks were waded through. We quickly became quite grateful that all the updating was done virtually – people’s absence is so much harder to detect that way. It became clear that the reason for such long gaps in communication through our time of uncertainty was in part due to a form of cascade briefing.

News was radiated out from the CEO and his team, layer by layer and being represented in slightly different flavours as it cascaded out. I was a General Manager at the time so got to see a lot more than some others, but it wasn’t until I asked specifically that I realised people were being briefed very differently according to their position in the hierarchy. The default position was ‘Tell ’em as little as possible’, the whole thing sucked and the vast engine room of befuddlement (for it truly was vast) was a huge drain on resources and morale. I left shortly after, this managed and layered method of disseminating information was one of the key reasons I no longer wanted to put my heart and soul into the company.

The approach didn’t work, things didn’t improve and so it was deemed that further change at the top was required. Shortly before leaving BT, Hanif Lalani said in an interview with The Times: “I think the ‘stand-up-and-speak-your-mind culture’ doesn’t exist [at BT]. When you’ve come through the civil service you do what you’re told. I think there’s a characteristic that’s still there and one that you would really want to break,” he said. “You want people to stand up and give their views and I think people are reluctant to do that. As we bring more people in, you can see that changing slowly. But I don’t think it’s one of those natural things here.”

As he prepared to leave, the Finance Director web site said Lalani finished his career with BT under a cloud, calling it “an ignominious end”. I can’t help but feel that if Lalani practiced what he preached he would have helped create a much better, more productive working environment for everyone and less importantly perhaps, a better end to his time with the company.

Of course it’s up to each and every company to decide how it wants to communicate and there may be sensitive issues that warrant due care and attention. But I think the default position should be we tell people as much as possible and work back from there as needed, not the other way around.

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Ordinarily Outstanding

I was part of a fascinating conversation yesterday which came together under the banner of The Petersham Project. There’ll be more about that later, for now I want to retell a story I recalled about a guy I worked with named Trevor.

Trevor supported a lot of sales teams when I worked for BT. Sales people aren’t known for delivering reports on time, keeping sales databases up to date, doing performance reviews etc etc, but I tried to help Trevor by being timely and accurate and in return he was enormously helpful to me, and many others.

Trevor delivered his work in an understated manner, I talked with him about this often and he would say ‘I’m just doing my job’. And he is right and he is one of the best examples of someone just doing their job that I’ve ever seen. Reminders from Trevor would be timely and friendly. Mistakes would be corrected and pointed out to you nicely, so you might not do it again next time. Simple, ordinary stuff, done in a thoroughly outstanding way. Trevor’s behaviour stood out also because the prevailing atmosphere was largely toxic. At times (not always I hasten to add)  we had people in positions of power behaving tyranically and often that transmitted through the organisation resulting in people seeming to take pleasure in others misfortunes. I may come back to this toxicity another time, for now I just thought it was important to help contextualise Trevor and the fact he chose to work in the wonderful way he did.

At the end of one year, Trevor was recognised for his efforts with an Outstanding appraisal. In BT we had five appraisal grades: Outstanding, Very Good, Good, Generally Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. Outstanding and Needs Improvement were like hen’s teeth, really rare. In terms of trying to measure performance, the company had become great at aiming for mediocrity, and of course it’s easier to manage folk if they’re all ‘doing OK’, right? Interestingly, after being in receipt of an Outstanding, Trevor spoke with me a few times about feeling pressure to ‘up his game’. He didn’t want to, and as someone who worked with him I didn’t need him to either, Trevor’s work was spot on. This approach seemed to be getting him down.

I’ve not seen or spoken with Trevor for over three years now, but his behaviour has made a lasting impression on me. So too has the rather slavish way that he was then expected to up his already outstanding game. We don’t all want to be rock stars, so why is there a constant drive and pressure on our people to behave that way?

Friday Fury – Feedback!

I’ve been extremely fortunate of late. I’ve done loads of good work, been out and about at lots of events and met plenty of interesting people. A lot of this interaction has resulted in some really positive, supportive and lovely feedback. And even the stuff that’s not been lovely has been very useful in helping me to think about how I can improve. From conversations with Carole I know she has recently been getting lots of lovely useful feedback from the people she teaches to swim (plus a particularly yummy piece of chocolate feedback too). And so has Keira. Her improvements in drumming and school have resulted in well done’s, keep it going’s and even a couple of merit points. It’s all good.

But hang on a minute. Today is Friday, ain’t I supposed to be angry today? Hell yeah! I’m angry all right. I’m angry on behalf of all those  people doing good work in companies and getting no feedback at all, let alone anything lovely or useful. A few days back I tweeted about a piece of super client feedback and Neil Usher responded:

Tweet Feedback

Neil’s reply got me thinking back to my twelve and a half years in BT. I got well paid, I got a car, a pension, and lots of other things besides. But in all honesty one of the main reasons I left BT was an almost total absence of timely, useful feedback. And I know from many conversations with many people that BT is not alone. This void exists in many workplaces, and its absence serves no one well.

You’re probably reading this and thinking: What a soppy git/Get a life/Doesn’t know he’s been born/Insert patronising comment of your choice here. But I think feedback matters. A lot. Neil, well done on recently passing 4,000 reads on your new workessence blog, nice work feller.

So if you’re like me, Carole and Keira and you have recently received or given some positive, supportive, lovely feedback, please share it here – there’s a deficit needs filling. And if you haven’t spotted your colleagues doing something right lately, look harder. And when you notice it – just tell them. Simply and sincerely. Please.

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