Worse Left Unsaid

Make sure employees tell you what's on their minds, especially in a downturn.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the July 2001 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Les Potter uses a story to illustrate why it's essential to keep employees talking. A machinist working on a piece of metal for an airplane's landing gear felt something wrong when he lifted it. But he said nothing because his supervisor tended to treat bad-news bearers as if they had caused the problem. The piece was then built into the landing gear, which failed during testing. It was taken apart and, when nothing wrong was found, put back together. The company tested the gear again before the problem was finally found and corrected.

"The amount of time wasted on that one failed landing gear was astronomical," says Potter, a Vienna, Virginia, organizational communication consultant, who says the tale stresses the importance of maintaining employee communications.

When Times Get Tough

Climates where people can speak freely are less common in economic downturns, when the chances increase that what employees have to say will be bad news about lost customers or declining sales, and when the negative consequences of everyday mistakes can be greatly amplified. "It's human nature that an employee doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news," says Potter. But you can't simply accept that condition if you want your company to excel, particularly during tumultuous times.

You can tell whether you have a communication problem: Next time you have a serious problem, simply trace knowledge of the issue back to its source and see how long it took it to come to your attention. "Did someone know earlier? Could we have acted earlier to solve the problem?" asks Potter.

Support reluctant whistleblowers by not blaming those who bring bad news. Encourage candor by holding frequent meetings where face-to-face talk takes place between employees and managers. Ask gentle, probing questions, and strictly refrain from criticizing bad-news bearers, Potter stresses.

Also, be open yourself. Share important news, including unpleasant reports, with everyone in your organization, says Potter, and you'll increase the chances that people will feel safe in bringing similar intelligence to you.

You can, however, go too far in encouraging communication if casual complaining takes up too much time. That's why Steven Hoffman, 35, of Spiderdance Inc. limits direct communication to managers, who in turn ferret out important information from their subordinates. "I have six people who report directly to me," says the CEO and co-founder of the 35-employee interactive television technology company. "I rely on my six managers to filter problems and work with the people under them."

It should be hard to hide a secret in a small company like Spiderdance. But Hoffman notes that his East Coast engineering office is 3,000 miles from his Venice, California, headquarters, and it sometimes takes special effort to know all he should. And, he adds, the impact of delayed work can be much worse in a small firm, where a few lost sales or customers can mean disaster.

Potter agrees. No matter what size or type of company you run, when the chances of bad news are high, "it all comes down to realizing that it's a smart move to keep them talking."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics.

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