When I was working for myself and leading a small company things were much easier. The 60 hour work-weeks, lack of vacation time, and total consumption in the work and building of the company were hard, but in a small company in a leadership position you never had to worry about what you said or did because your job was to drive hard and fast, make hard decisions, and move forward.
In general the people who join small companies are similar minded – they get that driving hard means sometimes working with ambiguous information, making hard decisions quickly, and being up front with communication. Feedback from fellow employees and the market wasn’t always easy to hear, but it was at least direct and actionable.
When you move into many bigger organizations you find something new pops up that you need to manage that has nothing to do with profit and loss, market share, or growing your business, but has everything to do with your upward mobility and longevity of your career – it’s called politics.
All organizations of all sizes actually have some level of politics – small businesses don’t get a total bye on this one, but the difference is that in a small company the market realities often stifle the politics. There is no opportunity for do-overs or mulligans – if you fail big it’s a real possibility that you don’t exist anymore, so the small companies that succeed tend to embrace small failures and clear communication in order to avoid the bigger failures.
In big and profitable organizations there is a tendency to tell superiors what they want to hear rather than the way things are. Projects become yellow when to the outside eye they are clearly flaming red, ideas that don’t hold water but that come from senior employees get investigated and analyzed (and god forbid sometimes implemented) even though their staff can see that they are folly, and emerging disruptive market trends get completely missed because of “ostrich syndrome” (when your head is in the sand it doesn’t look like a real threat).
And lower level staff don’t keep quiet because they don’t see the reality, but because they fear for their jobs or the difficult conversations that come from sharing the truth with a senior executive.
The stories and carcasses of companies that suffered from this politics paralysis are many and broad – Kodak, RIM, and Yahoo are some that pop to mind right off the bat. The concept of digital photography was brought forward at Kodak at a time when they could have leveraged it into the new photography revolution, but it died on the vine because it threatened core businesses with strong politically connected executives. RIM had all the same opportunities as Apple (and Google) to evolve the Smartphone, but because the CEOs didn’t recognize the turning tide in the industry (read the commentary from several of their recent Annual Reports) the opportunity was lost and the company is on a path to extinction.
Politics will never cease to exist in big companies, it’s a natural human behaviour to be protective of one’s own position and career and pointing out flaws in a plan or problems with execution to a more senior employee is never an easy and comfortable conversation, but we need to build our cultures to encourage this behaviour, not stifle it.
Many, if not most of the executives I know are all smart people – they didn’t get into their positions by making bad decisions or hiding from information that didn’t align with their own beliefs, they achieved their position by listening to feedback and making good decisions. As employees we need to learn to walk the fence carefully between self-preservation and sharing reality and we need to be free to do so.
Think about the environment you create for your staff – do you encourage contrary feedback in meetings and public forums? Do you inquire and press on points where there is seemingly unspoken disagreement with your thoughts or position on something? Do you build your teams to encourage dissenting thought and contrary points of view?
It is incumbent on our leaders to minimize the politics in our work environments at every level. Our staff are happy to “walk the fence” with us and have direct communication as long as we make that OK. If you stifle the conversation you are all but dooming your organization to failure.
Scream YES into a cavern and you’ll hear lots of agreement, but you’ll find the yesses slowly diminish and then die off.
Build a consensus culture around you and you’ll hear a similar chorus of agreement, until the chorus begins to shrink and die off with your company.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.