Is the Baby Ugly?
Well of course all babies are beautiful and there are very few things more precious than a new life in this world. Yet the analogy of a baby to our work is very interesting to consider. It is difficult, if not impossible, to not see extreme beauty in what we helped create. When we work hard on a project or invest a significant amount of time on anything, we become blinded by the emotional investment we have already made. We lose our objectivity and in some cases "fall in love" with the ugly baby we have created.
As a business coach, I often have the difficult task of informing an executive that their "baby" is ugly. This honest and objective feedback is rare and possibly extinct in many organizations. Subordinates simply will not (and in some cases cannot) be completely honest with the boss. This lack of objective feedback costs organizations millions of dollars because of what is commonly referred to as the coloring of fact. This coloring of fact represents the many initiatives that companies undertake and eventually end in abysmal failure. It could be a horrible product line, a terrible advertisement, or even a major project in the organization. If the right leader at the right level loves the baby, it figuratively becomes beautiful.
The baby can be analogous to so many things in the workplace. It can old "Bob" that has been with the company for thirty years. Or it can be the tired, old safety initiative that has become stale and ineffective. So what prevents unfiltered honesty in the workplace and how can an organization develop more candid dialogue? The answer is much more complex than the question.
Feedback flows in three primary directions and there are critical differences a leader needs to understand in order to maximize opportunity for the organization. Feedback from supervisor to subordinate has the fewest restrictions because it is expected to exist. While the reality of its existence is not always present, we really do desire honest feedback from our supervisor. We expect and sometime need affirmation of our hard work and effort in order to remain confident and secure in our actions. The challenge however, is that most supervisors have never been taught how to properly give feedback. Some just "wing it" and hope for the best while others just avoid feedback at all cost.
Feedback from the one peer to another (lateral feedback) presents its own challenges as power in the relationship is minimized. It is more analogous to siblings in a typical family hierarchy. While power can exist in this relationship, it is more about strength and dominance than true lines of organizational authority. Individuals must learn a completely different method in order to deliver difficult feedback to a peer member.
Finally, delivering feedback to the boss is the most challenging direction for many of us. There can be subtle and significant restrictors that prevent the supervisor from getting the information they need in order to make the best decisions for the organizations they lead. The problem however is that most difficult information never reaches those with the power to make the necessary changes.
Winston Churchill, while Prime Minister of England during World War II knew that he would not get the complete truth about what was going on with the war. He knew that his generals and close aids would intentionally and unintentionally filter information. In order to compensate for this, he created a special area close to his office and staffed it with young officers that collected raw data about troop movements, casualty reports and other important information. He would go and look at this information himself in order to gain a better understanding of what was going on with the war rather than simply accepting an opinion or interpretation of the information from those closest to him.
The simple truth about any organization is that information does not travel upward with relative ease. It takes special skill and practice for a successful leader to create an environment that promotes candor and honesty. Many organizations that I work with have extremely "ugly babies" that no one is willing to acknowledge. These often range from major projects to corporate initiatives and even product lines that consume multi-billion dollar factories making ugly products that very few will buy.
To make matters worse, by the time critical mistakes are acknowledged, the opportunity for true accountability has expired. So many people have invested in the project that accountability becomes organizational rather than individual. Once this occurs, it is too late to assign single point accountability and blame starts to appear. By this point, no one individual is willing to accept responsibility for the problem. Oddly enough, this is when the cycle can actually repeat itself and yes another "ugly baby" is born.
If you are a member of an organization with any tenure and size, I can absolutely assure you that this phenomenon is occurring in your organization while you are reading this. There is some "thing, process, initiative or person" that everyone knows is wrong or broken in your organization yet no one will speak up and call it ugly. This dirty little secret haunts your executive team and more importantly, your bottom line. To make things worse, the process or initiative can actually be dead in your organization yet is propped up to look alive like poor Uncle Bernie from the 1989 comedy movie "Weekend at Bernie's".