We are working with a large industrial company having big problems with a multi-billion dollar project that will make or break the company’s future. To understand the roots of this potential disaster we interviewed and surveyed key project leaders, managers, and executives. This was followed by offsite retreats with key leaders that included “moose hunting” exercises (see “Authentic Communication: Dealing with Moose-on-the-Table“) using a safe and anonymous process to bring out everyone’s true views of what was really happening and to foster real conversations about the issues that need to be addressed.
It’s now clear that a core problem threatening the success of their mega-project — and company — is broken feedback loops. Part of the problem was hierarchy: the more senior the manager present in a meeting, the less likely others below him or her on the organization chart would disagree, push back, or engage in a healthy debate. Symptoms include:
• The real discussions happen after the meeting
• People seem to agree at the meeting then go and do something else
• Commitments aren’t kept and deadlines are missed
• Once the more senior manager gives his or her opinion others usually agree or remain silent — the manager confuses this with commitment
• Senior leaders lead off with and then dominate meetings and discussions
• Touchy issues or discussions are avoided and become the “sacred moose”
• Key project leaders rarely debate all sides of important issues
In his Talent Management article, “How Much Feedback Do Managers Want and Need“, Joe Folkman sheds light on this critical issue by drawing from Zenger Folkman’s research of nearly 500,000 360-assessments of 20,000 global leaders. His data shows that “as leaders go up the ranks, they ask for less feedback. That’s bad for not just their own performance, but also for the organization as a whole.”
The critical question for this company is whether its senior leaders can learn to more actively encourage openness, transparency, and real feedback. The company and their own future depends on it.