Breaking out of Insular Cultures

It was the meeting we’d never forget. Our vice-president had finished a quick pep talk and opened the floor. Sure enough, the newbie took the bait, posing the question we were all dying to ask: Why didn’t leadership follow the same rules we did? We collectively cringed as our brave rookie pulled the thread, exposing the negligence and hypocrisy underlying so many decisions. Having suffered tongue lashings for expressing similar doubts, I admired her pluck, even as I lamented her naiveté—and likely fate.

You can imagine our vice-president’s response to our heroine’s query. His eyes narrowed, face reddening. His thoughts raced like graffiti across his carefully calculated persona: How dare she question me, I don’t have to answer to her. He quickly shut down the question, issuing the usual platitudes. "This is the way it is." "We have to move forward." "We all want the same thing." And the crowning insult: "This has been a useful discussion." He thought he was sending a message. And he did— just not the one he intended.

Instead he channeled our frustration toward himself. Suddenly, he was part of the problem, if not its embodiment. Some viewed him as a coward, afraid to face the issues. To others, he was a bully who hid behind his title when he couldn’t defend himself. We imagined him in the boardroom, going fetal when his superiors pushed back. And we questioned whether or not he truly understood our concerns, let alone cared about their impact on us. In a word, he was insular, an island unto himself. His short-sighted sureness had narrowed and limited us. As our leader, he set the tone—and our division’s culture had grown as stale and insular as he was.

Many times, you can best judge leaders by how they handle that which is politically incorrect, questions, skepticism, and criticism. Some look to stamp out dissent, chilling openness, creativity, or caution. Others sidestep it, knowing that an immovable bureaucracy and unforgiving job market will discourage serious challenges. The best leaders understand one truism: Silence and its offshoots—disengagement, antagonism, fear, and stagnation—are far more lethal to a culture than uncomfortable discussions are.

An Insular Boss Always Knows Best

The command-and-control culture is still alive and well in many companies. At every level, employees are taught to withhold conjecture and judgment, to give the benefit of the doubt in the face of preselected facts. But a "know your place" mind-set breeds secrecy, encourages indolence, and inevitably heralds abuse. Our vice-president was the product of his insular culture. He viewed himself as the one who always knew best. Everyone else was a means to an end, someone who would naturally accede and fall in line.

Such 19th century thinking was discredited long ago. We live in a decentralized world whose freedom and technology permit millions to express views globally in seconds. We must contend with the transparency brought on by e-mail, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and WikiLeaks. Try as they may, companies can never again bury their issues in-house for long. With rapidly compounding breadth and depth of information, one person cannot possibly stay fully versed in emerging trends and best practices. Now companies grow through an influx of ideas and participants. Too often, that’s what’s missing in decisions: due diligence, input, and debate.

Take our dismissive vice-president. His attitude undermined his message and credibility. Like everyone, he craved certainty, viewing anything contradictory as threatening. Brick by brick, he built a wall founded on fear. Walls are but temporary. They are meant to be torn down when threats pass. How can you tear down an insular culture and reconnect? Consider doing the following:

Prepare Well. Chances are, you’ll need to sell your policies or strategies to the higher-ups. However, you rarely get a second shot with them. Where can you turn to test and fine-tune your message? Start from the ground up with your employees. Simulate the conditions you’ll face, and make your case. Focus on facts, examples, and anecdotes, so your people can connect with your reasoning. Let them ask questions that prompt you to examine your assumptions and defend your positions. Watching their reactions will enable you to evaluate your own positioning, word choice, and demeanor. Acknowledge limitations and unknowns to boost your credibility. In short, draw potential surprises into the open and make your mistakes under less pressure, before a forgiving audience. Your employees may not agree with your direction but they’ll respect your willingness to engage them.

Recognize Your Flaws. Every argument or initiative has weak points. Most likely, there are plenty you haven’t considered. Worse, you probably haven’t explored their full ramifications (good and bad) on your customers, infrastructure, and internal expectations, politics, and culture. You don’t know everything. There may be better ideas, if not more realistic or effective applications or the means to implement them. And you may not be their source—no shame in that. If you’re seeking solutions and not Band-Aids, go outside the bubble for other perspectives. Dump the hierarchical mind-set and sacred cows: You’ll never win hearts and minds with brute force, pretense, or half-baked plans. Every question, critique, suggestion, and insight is an opportunity. Capitalize on them. You never know where a great idea will come from.

Learn How You’re Perceived. That’s right: Your argument’s merit is only part of the equation. The other half is you. Fact is, your employees are constantly evaluating you, associating you with the current work conditions and satisfaction they experience. Their filed-away perceptions of you—fact or inferred—will color their perception of your ideas. That perception is reality. If they question your competence and motives, they’ll tune you out. If they sense you’re conceited or hiding something, they’ll reflexively resist. And if they believe you overestimate your abilities or are above justifying, they’ll never buy into anything you say. You need to sell yourself before your idea. It’s about appearance and approach—and what they symbolize, as much as content. It starts with being self-aware: knowing how they see you and what they expect from you. You may build your plans around the quantitative, but it’s usually sold through the connotative. Don’t undermine a good idea by being a poor ambassador for it.

Address Misconceptions. Think your message is clear? To you, maybe. Your people may not understand what and why, let alone who, when, and how. That may well be your fault. You’d like to believe you don’t have time for questions or second-guessing. And the easiest way out is to just shut down discussion. In reality, your people grow more suspicious and resentful when you’re evasive or crack down like a banana republic tyrant. Want to see if your message is actually getting through? Give your people an open forum and listen to their concerns with minimal defensiveness (and no retaliation later). It takes courage to speak up. When your people do, there are issues, real or imagined, at play. Most likely, they’re filtering what they’re saying when you’re not around. Even if you don’t have the authority or resources to help them, let them vent anyway (provided it doesn’t get personal). The process may produce goodwill the next time you need their buy-in.

Build Trust. In today’s world, we don’t just want to watch the game; we want to be part of it. That’s particularly true with skilled employees. Fifty years ago, business was populated by "organization men." They shed their personal identities and centered their lives around their companies, willing to do anything (right or wrong) to preserve them. Such Politburo-style groupthink, with its "need-to-know basis," gets further out of style with every Enron or Bernie Madoff revelation. Now employees—realizing how expendable we’ve become—have adopted the manner of entrepreneurs. We’ve carved out personal brands separate from our employers. We recognize that our affiliations and reputation will make or break our future prospects. As a result, we have a more existential stake in our employers. It’s too risky to be locked out of the process. At one time, employees would shoulder the burden of failed decisions. In a hyper-connected world, that fallout reflects on us personally, too. Bottom line: Employees now require a fair platform and a transparent process. Without that, trust is fleeting. As is success.

Too often, company cultures and the leaders who curate them are more afraid of the questions asked than of the ones that aren’t. Unfortunately, it is the latter that ultimately produce painful, public mistakes. People naturally shy away from what’s uncomfortable, with conflict topping that list. Bringing opposing views to light provides a necessary check against short-sightedness and hubris, of being held hostage to leadership’s weaknesses. A good debate—sans personal attacks and piling on—reveals those employees who are good stewards to their customers and to their employer.

In some ways, the worst thing someone can become is insular like our dismissive vice-president, closed to new people and ideas and terrified of ambiguity and debate. Naysayers will claim that expressing reservations disrupts and distracts, sapping momentum and spotlighting negatives. So, too, does the apathy or cynicism fashioned by suppression. Others will claim it is folly to follow the wisdom of crowds—and they’re right. However, it is often the lone questioner who raises the red flag. Initiatives are only as strong as their toughest critics. If plans don’t hold up to scrutiny, change direction. It’ll save harsher questions later.